Get These Kids on the Engineering Train

Once upon a time, my dad was an engineer. I remember in kindergarten, when we had to draw a picture of our parents doing their job, how proud I was of the big train I drew, my father hanging out of the window in front, wearing a striped hat, as was the style for engineers everywhere.

It was years later that I began to understand that he wasn't that kind of engineer. He was an electrical engineer. I still didn't really know what it was he did, but my brother told me he designed Caterpillar equipment or something.

Apparently, my 5-year-old notion of an “engineer” is not so uncommon, even among the educated. “Most high school counselors and advisors don’t understand what an engineer does,” said Karen Panetta, IEEE Fellow and engineering professor at Tufts University near Boston. They think they drive trains, and that wireless technology is some kind of magic.

Perhaps that’s taking the level of ignorance a bit too far, but the point is fair enough. Middle school and high school students can hardly be expected to realize they’d like to pursue a career in engineering if there’s nobody around to turn them on to it. “How can you follow a passion if you haven’t discovered it yet?” Panetta asked.

Panetta noted this failing as moderator of a panel discussion yesterday at the Honeywell Users Group (HUG) meeting in Phoenix. The panelists in her crew were Frank Whitsura, vice president of technology and operations for Honeywell Process Solutions; Greg Rogers, senior manager of control engineering at Enterprise Products; Bryan Gene, a chemical engineering student from the University of British Columbia who won this year’s UniSim Design Challenge; and our own Walt Boyes, editor in chief of Control.

Honeywell’s Whitsura agreed that school guidance was lacking, but said the same was true when he was a kid (no offense to Whitsura, but that was quite some time ago). “When I graduated from high school, I got absolutely no guidance on career choices whatsoever,” he said. “My daughter graduated from high school last week, and I can tell you it hasn’t changed one bit.”

If kids today are inspired to be engineers, it’s generally because of influence from family members; because they’re the children, nieces or nephews of engineers, Whitsura said.

So what inspired Gene, the panel’s student contingent? “I knew I was good at physics and science,” he said. His mom’s boss said if he was creative, too, he should be an engineer. “I saw that he was rich, so…” (Gene had a boldly honest streak that often got the audience laughing. At another time, he tried to explain how the women in his college program weren’t normal women. “A lot of them that I know hate kids.”)

Boyes contended that, especially given the dismal state of science and technology know-how from teachers today, kids are pretty much on their own for inspiration. “Frankly, each one of us has to take responsibility for our own career and own education,” he said.

Who inspired you to be an engineer? Do you see your kids getting any inspiration in their lives? Are teachers providing that inspiration? Other mentors? Family members? What could we do to provide some passion?

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  • <p>I fell into engineering purely by accident. I took a minor class in Electronics at college, and kept taking more until finally a teacher said, "Why don't you change your major? You're as smart as most of the guys in the program." Since I wasn't stuck on the major I had chosen (no great guidance in high school, even for top students), I figured what the heck - and of course it was the best thing I could have done.</p> <p>And now, with two college-age daughters who are both excellent in math and science, I haven't been successful in convincing them to give it a chance. On the first one, I got close - she studied Industrial Design at Georgia Tech for a year, which helped her realize she didn't want to be stuck in front of a computer all day - something I can indeed empahize with! She's now a nursing major and loving it. My younger daughter is starting college this fall as a math major, with designs on business or finance. If I can only convince her to take a programming or basic engineering course, maybe she would catch the bug. </p> <p>So even with an engineer parent, what other factors could have influenced their choices? Our county schools now have a well-developed robotics initiative, with over 100 teams from elementary through high school, thanks in large part to my company's financial support. It generated so much interest and participation over the last six years, that last year, one of the high schools installed a STEM Academy specifically for enthusiastic students.</p> <p>To take matters further, I could picture a very basic introduction to "engineering" and problem-solving integrated into the classroom as a special activity at the elementary school level, possibly even led by high school STEM students. Just getting exposure to the satisfaction of creating and making something work would go a long way to influence kids - using principles and "theories" to produce tangible results is an exciting experience, similar to sports or music. </p>

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