In honor of
National Engineers Week, Iíd like to recognize how interest in science and engineering does not necessarily begin in classrooms or derive from textbooks. In fact, the desire to innovate and discover often occurs organically at an early age.
While most of the general public understands that their car or A/C unit is a system, few recognize the abundance of simple systems we interact with on a daily basis. Everyday systems such as doorknobs or clean tap water are just as important, and require the hard work of many great engineering minds.
As the level of system complexity escalates and we begin solving some of the worldís biggest problems, our society will grow increasingly dependent upon the talents of generations who are just now beginning to explore their creativity and learn about the way things work. Nurturing this exploration at a young age is vitally important.
Tools such as the Lego Mindstorms programmable robots are cleverly disguised as novelties while doubling as Trojan horses into the developing minds of children. While these tools are engaging and fun for kids to play with, they introduce fundamental concepts of system design that will be vital to a future in engineering education.
Itís equally critical that we arm the next generation of engineers with scalable system design tools. In other words, truly innovative systems are designed after years of practice and scaffolded learning. Getting students started in design at an early age with tools such as the Lego kits allow kids to understand the basics of system design on a platform thatís not dissimilar to the way professional engineers design complex systems in the workforce.
We must recognize that keeping students engaged with lessons that are relevant to their everyday lives is essential. Engaging curriculum directly links abstract engineering concepts to impressive and dynamic real-world applications. Popular news items such as NASA exploration, CERN, or the recent Felix Baumgartner space jump are outstanding examples of innovation and discovery that attract kids to science and engineering in the first place.
Many engineering educators have already begun to recognize this trend and started the glacial pace of evolving their curriculum to incorporate experimentation and hands-on projects that not only teach the math of engineering, but also empower students to begin building basic systems to apply those concepts. As the tools for system design become more democratized and available to all ages and skill levels, the seeds planted at an early age will blossom into an empowered generation of innovative and passionate engineers. Scaling the lessons and building the tools for every level of this new educational approach is the pressing challenge for those of us who realize its monumental importance.
Itís been 40 years since we first set foot on the moon, but I still remember how that monumental achievement ignited my initial fascination in science and led me to pursue an education, and ultimately, a career, in engineering. I donít know if I would have stayed as motivated to study, innovate, and discover without that inspiration, and I have to ask, are we providing that inspiration for our children today?
As the Director of Training and Academic Programs for National Instruments, Dave Wilson ensures that the most effective product proficiency development strategies and tactics are implemented worldwide. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in applied physics from the State University of New York.