Chrysler Group: STEM — Mining The Future of Automotive Engineering

No longer are four wheels, two axles, and a few seats enough components to be considered a car. The automobile industry is experiencing a confluence of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in terms of considering the design and functionality of a vehicle. Now manufacturers constantly dig through the current market trends to integrate a vast array of disparate factors from weight reduction, green energy, and alternative fuel usage, to the ergonomics of the user/machine interface, comfort, and onboard infotainment. In order to stay relevant, car manufacturers are focused on recruiting and building a diverse set of experts from every background.

“Technology is the key to addressing areas that are transforming rapidly in the automotive industry,” said Olabisi Boyle, Chrysler Group’s Director of Engineering, Planning, and Cost Reduction in a telephone interview.  Although the car manufacturing industry was originally dominated by engineers, the shifting landscape of how cars are used means manufacturers “need science and technology there” in order to stay competitive. Boyle said that one approach Chrysler is using to keep ahead of the curve in terms of talent recruitment and cultivation is through sponsoring a vast variety of STEM education programs.

The commitment to developing diverse engineering talent at Chrysler is realized by helping to provide continuing STEM education for anyone and everyone interested. The STEM programs that Chrysler sponsors transcend demographics; not only is there a focus on cultivating engineering talent with diverse cultural backgrounds, but also the programs are aimed at tapping into the innate wonder that flawless science, technology, engineering, and mathematics generates within people of all ages.

In the Motor City it is never too early to get the kids involved in the engineering business, which is why the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program was initiated. Olabisi is currently a member of the board for the program, which provides STEM classes to local area children aged from K-12. The classes are offered on Saturdays during the school year and during the week throughout the summer, focusing young explorers on subjects ranging from nanotechnology and renewable energy to video game design and entrepreneurism.

Besides traditional classroom models, the company sponsors competitions to inspire young engineers to collaborate outside of a classroom environment. Since 1995 Chrysler Group has invested nearly $2.1 million in First Robotics teams across the U.S. and Canada. The international competition for high schoolers is for many their first opportunity at real world engineering experience, from design and collaboration, through development and trouble-shooting.

The company participates in Detroit’s Cristo Rey High School work program. The school is an art and technology school designed to help disadvantaged children of low-income households achieve the opportunities they desire. In exchange for one day of work per week at the plant, Chrysler sends the wages a student earns to the school, which in turn helps pay for the student’s tuition. Currently, the Detroit Cristo Rey High School has a 100 percent college attendance rate and the work programs account for 30 to 40 percent of the school’s operating costs.

Earlier this year, Chrysler partnered with Florida International University (FIU), to create a STEM education initiative known as “Engineers on Wheels.” The project is led by FIU students and monitored by FIU faculty, and gives Floridian public school students an opportunity to become familiar with the hi-tech, hands-on education needed to succeed in STEM subjects and careers.

Beyond providing opportunities for the youth of the nation, Chrysler Group also strives to continue to support young engineers through the higher education system as well. Chrysler offers hands on training for a bevy of summer interns. In 2014 the company had its largest group of interns ever, with over 500 paid interns from 127 universities and 27 states participating. The company also backs Formula SAE Team sponsorships that allow engineering students to conceive, design, fabricate, and race formula one-style racecars.

Chrysler Group champions the development of minority scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. For the past three years, Chrysler Group has been named a top supporter of engineering programs at the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), according to U.S. Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine, and the company sponsors “Great Minds in STEM,” an organization that provides scholarships to Hispanic students majoring in a STEM subject area.

The company also developed the Chrysler Institute Engineering Program as an initiative to help graduates with Bachelor degrees obtain their Masters through on the job training. Each week, CIE interns come into the lab for one day and train in a variety of core courses such as releasing plants and quality control, and electives like working in the design office. Each CIE intern gets a director such as Olabisi as a mentor, who helps acclimate and guide interns through the program. After two years of working one day a week, CIEs get their Master’s degree — all expenses paid.

According to Boyle, the Chrysler campus is an “exciting place” for aspiring engineers, and instantly captivates their minds and imaginations. The second largest facility in North America to house one business entity (behind only the Pentagon) is full of different scientific and technological playgrounds: hot and cold temperature chambers, a testing track proving grounds, all of the research and development labs, design facilities, and a myriad of top scientists and engineers to question.

The biggest challenge is attracting people unfamiliar with the trade to begin participating in STEM programs and internships. However, the problem is only one of ignorance, rather than disinterest or disdain for the field. “Once you get them here, this is the place they want to be,” said Boyle.

For example, in Michigan due to the automotive-centric lifestyle and industry entrenched in the state many people are already exposed to the engineering trade and readily participate in STEM programs. However, if the ranks of engineers follow in lockstep with past car designs and technology, changes will be minute — there will never be the innovation needed to keep Chrysler on the cutting edge of the industry.

By selecting and curating a young, diverse generation of engineers, Olabisi and her fellow mentors have the opportunity to challenge the pervasive notion that the engineering industry is an exclusive boy’s club that only a pre-selected few are capable of entering. Such recruitment of individuals of diverse backgrounds into STEM programs, not only culturally but also geographically is “pretty critical” to the future of Chrysler.

“You need people with diverse thoughts and thinking, from different states and countries,” said Boyle. “Too homogenous designs only work in one place. If you leave out perspectives, you put yourself at a severe disadvantage.”

Boyle said that the field of engineering can be particularly daunting for young women, since it does not fit within the traditional female role. “They come talk to me and say things like, ‘There are all guys here, does this mean I have to dress like a guy?’ and I tell them, ‘Look at me, I’m not dressed like a guy!’”

She emphasized that achieving dreams is not built on accepting preconceived perceptions and defeats. After being born in America, Boyle lived in Lagos, Nigeria until she was 10, when she moved to Harlem with her mother. “I remember dreaming I was going to run teams of engineers,” said Boyle. “And I was a girl in Harlem, living with a single mom in a small apartment struggling to make ends meet.” Although odds were stacked against her favor, that did not deter Boyle from focusing on her goals.

Boyle said she sometimes thinks of a girl in Harlem now who dreams to be an engineer, and hopes her own story can help inspire those to never give up. “She will see this and is thinking, ‘if you were once me, then that means I can be you later. I can do this?’” said Boyle. “She absolutely can.”

When asked how such nascent scientists and engineers can take control of their destiny and start their journey Boyle conceded that although it is tough to transition dreams into reality, there is a three step process for guaranteed success:

Get in to college. Do not worry about mitigating factors like tuition — there are always options that can be figured out. As long as you get in and take school seriously, the right faculty and administration will take note and assist you, because “if you do the right things, people will see that and help you get out.”
Get out of college. Ultimately, there is not much point to getting into college if you do not get out; the only physical recognition of years spent in school gaining intangible knowledge is the degree.
Plan for the future. “Things don’t happen if you don’t plan,” says Boyle. And although plans are fluid and will vary over the years, it is crucial to have a quality plan that gives a “general direction” to making dreams happen. “Pick something of value, and then make sure all the little and big choices you make impacts that value in a positive way,” says Boyle. The accumulation of poor choices will negatively affect those goals, and then “it won’t happen.”

“Life choices every day matter,” said Boyle. “That’s going to bed early, doing your homework, who you hang out with — and it is the sum of those choices that determines whether you succeed.”