Of the five items mentioned for the current poll (How do we get today's kids interested in engineering?), no single item is going to “make it.” It’s like asking “What is the most important issue or component of an automobile: safety? fuel efficiency? transmission and wheels? alternative power sources? They’re are all important. What is needed will be a combination of those mentioned, plus others not mentioned and/or what someone never even thought about.
Getting kids interested in the engineering professions is going to be a matter of making the sciences look exciting, fun, interesting, and for the common everyday person, not just for the esoteric brainy nerd in school. It must also be perceived as something with a good future, and for which a person can make a real difference in the world.
With thousands of U.S. engineers and other technical professionals being laid off, this is hardly a field many would want to be flocking to. When the same U.S. companies that laid them off, ostensibly due to the downturn in the economy, start sending work to India, China, and wherever but its own, it does not take a rocket scientist to understand why so many are reluctant to get into this field. I do not have any good answer to that issue. No one in the industry can rightfully say that they did not know this was going to happen. This one issue, alone, could be the main cause of the problem. As it is known in business, one bad word from a customer does far more damage than many great advertisements.
The economy and the future of the engineering professions aside, the sciences must be made to be more interesting and understandable to more than to mostly those who are naturally good with mathematics, technology & science. It has to be presented in such a way as to intrigue a student so that they want to learn more, versus having to learn some of it because it is a requirement. In a sense, the field will have to be marketed to the kids of today – in the classroom as well as out of it. The robot competitions are good, but they appeal to a relatively esoteric few. The view of the engineer as a nerd started to change when DeLorean designed a very different car – one that anything but a nerd would be driving, not to mention, having designed. Kamen designed a personal vehicle that defies our thoughts of standing on a two-wheeled vehicle while it was not moving, and not fall over. Now, what did you say gyroscopes again, and how they keep the thing from falling over? They use those things in boats, planes and rockets also? How can a thousand voices go through a fiber of glass thinner than a strand of hair? They do what else with fiber optics? Cool!
In learning the sciences, show me the cool stuff first, then show me how or why it works. Let me play with a working pneumatic or hydraulic model, in which I can manually pump air or a fluid into a chamber. Make the model have changeable cylinder sizes so I can play around with it and see the differences that you just told me about. Let me play with valves (hydraulics) while a powered pump is running, so I can see the system work and, for the first time, understand what power steering is all about. When I want to design something practical that uses hydraulics, that is the time you can show me why and how to calculate the sizes and ratios and pounds per cubic centimeter in order for my device to be able to handle the load. Other aids, models, or devices can be created to let students see concepts. In understanding ocean and air currents (the weather), a lava lamp (or something like it) will show a lot more than words and diagrams. Seeing actual movement and temperature is a lot more effective. Show me how electricity is created when a magnetic field travels across a wire. Explain that a magnetic field is created when electricity travels through a wire. Then you can tell me why my PC and office equipment got fried when lightning hit a tree in the neighbors yard across the street but still caused a spike in the telephone line. After describing the Doppler effect with sound (the train pulling into a train station and going past you), you can then explain the concept of Doppler radar, and how astronomers use the Doppler effect concept with light (color shifts) to determine whether a star is moving towards you or away from you. Neat!
Improved coursework can utilize kits and devices as just described. “21st Century” hobby kits will be an effective in-school and out-of-school option also. Snap-together modular kits for electronics (already available) and robotics (becoming more available) are also great ideas. More should be developed and not cost a fortune. Most of my learning occurs with my doing — spending loads of time playing with something and trying other ways of using it — be it software or devices. It can be fun to tinker in an unhurried and un-pressured sort of way. “Hurry up and have fun so you can get back to work” doesn’t cut it. If/when a student gets to a point where they want to do something beyond what a kit has to offer, they will be much more inclined to want to learn more so that they can “customize” their ideas and to develop something further. Remember, that a lot of the earlier computer games were written by kids, not professional programmers.
There will always be concepts and questions that are beyond a person learning something new. Most children have not yet learned how to dig or to have perseverance. Mentoring is important (and should be very available) to explain what another teacher or kit did not do, or do well-enough for the person. There are always blocks to understanding that, once overcome, allow an individual to shoot ahead. Encouragement also helps.
Better PR & “celebrity” spokespeople make the fields cool. Period. It will attract kids just like the commercials do.
Engineers are problem solvers. Most are creative and like a good challenge. What are your solutions to this issue?
Mark M. Mendelson