Youths Won't Discover Engineering Without Direction

Engineering Profession Needs More Fireballs: Programs Designed for Youths Help to Instill Interest in Engineering at a Young Age

Jeremy PollardBy Jeremy Pollard

I've harped on training forever, and now is no different. It's probably more important than ever.

Remember Gus, the guy I wrote about who was promoted to manager before he turned 30? He was going to leave his company and spoke up about it. He was willing to change things, and look where it got him. Management.

The interesting thing about Gus is that he was born to be an engineer, but he really didn't know it. He told me about a program that McMaster University offered when he was in secondary (high) school. School officials came to visit his small school in rural Ontario to introduce the school to the sciences, including engineering.

The program is called the Fireball Show. McMaster also runs a four-week program called Learning Enrichment Advancement Program (LEAP) on campus, designed to give high-school students an intense, hands-on experience with engineering. Sure, it gets them students, and that is a main reason, but their passion for teaching and developing young minds I'm sure is the main objective.

Gus said that without the Fireball Show, he never would have entertained the idea of becoming an EE.

There are competitions everywhere, but which ones actually come to you? ISA's Young Automation Professional (YAP) program at its conference last year appeared to be a huge success. However, it reaches only a few and really is geared to people already in the biz.

I'd challenge ISA to encourage its local chapters and provide some budget money for them to put on a Fireball-type show. If each chapter finds a Gus or two, the rewards far outweigh any risk.

I'm pretty sure Tiger Woods had no idea he could play golf as well as he does, but his father knew. Earl Woods arguably nurtured a young Tigger into a Tiger. How many people do you know whose kids follow in their footsteps? Mechanics, carpenters, doctors and the like. The engineering profession? Not so much.

We don't exalt the discoveries and innovations of engineering to draw people into it. Too many people watch plasma TVs but don't care how the technology was developed.

My brother is a mechanical PhD specializing in turbulence in T-junctions. Boring, eh?

He works with the medical community to refine a delivery system for inhalers. Turbulence, you see, is the main reason most of the medicine doesn't get absorbed. Now that's not boring. But who will know?

Engineering isn't a pocket-protected, spectacled, white-shirted, problem-solving profession. It is a thought process about thinking generally, finding solutions and providing a big wow factor on the satisfaction meter. It offers reasonable pay, and it is very rewarding work. But who knew?

Gerald Beaudoin is the automation coordinator for Leahy Orchards in Quebec, Canada. He sent me an email after reading a column I wrote.

He believes that teaching technologies and engineering as the art of problem-solving at an early age is beneficial. He reduced his work week to three days so that he could work in the community.

He started an after-school program for sixth graders that uses Lego's Mindstorm platform to create a buzz in the technology-dormant minds of 10- and 11-year-olds.

"I'm just blown away by their interest, curiosity, determination and ability to use computers." he wrote. "The Lego platform allows the students to fully explore the world of logic, programming and basic mechanics."

His philosophy, he says, is to catch them young. He says that as we, the current holders of the guru bottleneck, begin to age and focus in a different direction, it is time to pass along some of our enthusiasm for our technologies and our careers. Stimulation of a young mind in the right environment provides success and reward for Gerald.

Maybe vendors can do more to create school programs to further an enthusiasm for technology in young minds. If McMaster can do it, then institutions, vendors and trade association can. too.

I will be learning and sharing this year in my columns. First off will be FPGAs and how they can work in discrete control methods. Other topics will include server-based HMIs, SQL vs. Access for database engines, VB-based HMI, wireless sensors, worldwide access to anything, safety-related applications and more. Any suggestions?