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?