Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Chris Dessenberger and Nathan Johnson, both from the Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, work on their VEX robot during the Utah Technology Student Association Conference at the Davis Applied Technology College in Kaysville on Wednesday, March 15, 2017.
KAYSVILLE — Autmun Ferdig is a Hillcrest High School senior who has been working on a very ambitious to-do list: Finish high school. Get into MIT. Study engineering. Learn blacksmithing.
On Wednesday, she was one of more than 700 Utah high school students competing against each other in some three dozen tech-oriented categories as part of the annual Utah Technology Student Association Conference at the Davis Applied Technology College.
Ferdig and her fellow senior classmate, Mary Evans, teamed up in a fashion design and technology competition that required them to put a complete outfit together using only recycled and/or repurposed materials.
"It was a pretty big challenge," Ferdig said. "We went to the thrift store and bought some brocade pillows, a shower curtain and a duvet cover."
The two also incorporated some salvaged plastic plumbing line. The outfit, designed and engineered by Evans and constructed by Ferdig, would not have looked out-of-place on a "Downton Abbey" set.
The two students were showing their jitters as they awaited their turn in front of the judging panel, but they still sounded confident about their project.
"I feel pretty good about what we've done," Ferdig said.
Nerves and excitement were the order of the day as students prepped projects, competed in the various categories and awaited the judges' decrees. The halls of the college were crammed and organizers said the success of the event was testing the size of the venue.
"Over the past five to seven years, interest in participating in the Utah Technology Student Association has just exploded," said event organizer Robert Mecham. "Not too long ago, we easily fit into a facility of this size, but now we're bursting at the seams."
Mecham said more than 1,000 Utah junior high and high school students attended the event over the last two days, and attendance records have been broken every year for the past five years.
While the Technology Student Association has been joined by school administrators, teachers and education advocates in promoting the benefits of building tech savviness, Mecham said a lot of impetus is coming from the students themselves.
"Utah students have a growing awareness of where the jobs are going to be as they come out of high school and college," said Mecham. "And many of them are making decisions to align their interests to match."
Hillcrest High School teacher Clief Castleton, who has been involved with the program for seven years, says there's a mix of motivations and goals among the students, and that was to be expected.
"Certainly, we've had some kids who just want to do something that's fun and maybe get out of school for a day to come to an event like this," said Castleton. "But having kids from all over the 'goal spectrum' is actually a good thing."
Castleton noted that not all students were going to have the academic success to chase an admissions letter from MIT, like Ferdig, but that many other technology-intensive career opportunities are out there, even for those looking for paths to careers outside a four-year college.
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"We strive for academic excellence for all students, but it's always going to be the case that some of them just aren't going to want to spend another four years or more going to class and taking tests after high school," Castleton said. "One of the great things about the expanding tech jobs market is that there are really great opportunities for getting into areas with shorter job-training programs."
As for Ferdig, she's moving toward her goals, undaunted, even in the face of receiving news recently that she did not get into MIT.
"It was a long shot, but worth trying for," Ferdig said.
Now, she'll be looking to enter an engineering program at the University of Utah or University of New Mexico after she graduates from Hillcrest this spring.
Oh, and that blacksmithing thing? That's still happening, too.