Between 2014 and 2024, the U.S. Department of Labor projects that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs will increase by 17 percent – a rate faster than any other type of job in the U.S. To put these statistics into real-world context, technology companies alone – including Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, among others – will need to add 650,000 new jobs by 2018, and two-thirds of these hires will have STEM backgrounds.

It’s clear that the jobs of tomorrow will be need to be filled by the aspiring youth of today, but is there STEM-inspired talent in the pipeline to meet the demands of the future? Do educators have the tools they need to help bolster the knowledge required for students to pursue technical jobs in these high-need fields? Those are just two of the burning questions that have led politicians, educators and business leaders to advocate for more innovative STEM education programs.

“Students need to acquire science-based skills and knowledge, as well as develop an appreciation of science as a discipline and the extraordinary role that it plays in twenty-first century life. Additionally, we need to need to ensure these students also develop an understanding of safety science and how to reduce preventable injuries,” explains Michael Cohen, Ph.D., President, Michael Cohen Group LLC.

To heed this call and boost students’ interest in STEM learning, UL developed UL XplorLabs – an educational program designed to help middle school students solve real problems through science and engineering. Before launching UL XplorLabs, UL sought inputs from educators to determine what tools would be most helpful in their classrooms.  Moreover, all of the components in UL XplorLabs align with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and utilize a multi-faceted case study approach that includes interactive videos, virtual testing elements, hands-on experiences and classroom crowd-sourced challenges.

With these multiple elements, the platform helps educators and students improve skills in scientific inquiry – asking the students to determine why a phenomenon happens before connecting it with real-life engineering challenges and then applying safety science to foster solutions. What’s more, the program aims to serve as a learning tool for encouraging students to solve the problems of tomorrow that don’t yet exist or to work on scientific endeavors yet to be explored.

The first module in the series, Portable Electrical Power, explains the risks of lithium-ion batteries and thermal runaway – an area in which UL has deep research expertise. This module provides teachers and students the opportunity to go beyond reading materials and virtually experience what could happen in a laboratory environment through a hands-on simulation of a “drop test” (a test conducted in UL’s laboratories).

At the end of the test, students can see what damage has been done based upon the distance of the drop. Students are also presented with a design challenge in which they’re tasked with constructing a safe enclosure for a lithium-ion battery that powers a hoverboard.

“Teachers and students need opportunities to connect with practicing engineers and scientists who engage in the process of asking scientific questions every day. This program allows for students to solve real-world problems with creative solutions, not prescribed results,” notes Kelly Keena, a Ph.D. with Blue Lotus Consulting & Evaluation, and a former science teacher and instructional coach.

“With UL Xplorlabs, we’re putting science and engineering into the hands of inspired thinkers,” said Cara Gizzi, UL’s Director of Public Safety Education. “We believe that by encouraging a new generation of problem solvers to find solutions to real-world engineering challenges, we are enabling the safe adoption of innovations and increasing trust in the marketplace.”

To find out more about this free middle school resource, visit ULXplorlabs.org or follow @ULXplorlabs on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.