Activist Ray Almgren: If you've spent your career in a cube, you've failed this profession.
VP of Product Marketing and Academic Relations at National Instruments, Ray Almgren sits on the board of directors and serves as vp for the National Instruments foundation, which focuses on science and engineering education and research. He is currently a member of the Texas Engineering Technical Consortium (TETC) Advisory Committee, the Corporate and Foundation Alliance, and serves on the advisory committees for several engineering schools.
Design News: We keep hearing about organizations like NASA predicting a shortfall of engineers in the future. Given the number of engineers who lost their jobs during the recent downturn in the economy, it's kind of hard to believe. What gives?
Almgren: While I can't speak for what the overall need for engineers will be in the future, I can safely say that there is always a shortage of superstar engineers! But seriously, the engineering community has always been exposed to the inevitable waxing and waning of large programs. In the late 1970s, for example, a lot of engineers lost their jobs when the Apollo program was stopped. But worrying about whether we have enough engineers in the future is the narrow view. Rather than saying, "Let's work to ensure that we have enough engineers," we need to work to ensure the technical literacy of people in general. Given the increasingly technologically sophisticated society that we live in, it's insane to assume that we aren't going to need a whole lot more people who are technically literate-whether they wind up working as engineers or not.
Design News: It's true, though, that enrollment in engineering degree programs has fallen off significantly since the 1980s. What is being done to get more kids excited about engineering?
Almgren: There have always been efforts to increase interest in science and engineering, and it's true now, too. The American Society of Engineering Educators, for example, recently added a pre-K through 12 sub-section to their program, and the session was packed. I think educators realize that they are going to need to play a lead role in addressing this issue. They also realize that in order to get money at the state and national levels, they are going to need to prove that they have strategies designed to make an impact on engineering education. People have some really good ideas--the problem is that we need a really good study done over a period of a dozen years or so to better understand what strategies work best in motivating students to pursue science and engineering degrees.
Design News: How can we raise the profile of the engineering community in the U.S.?
Almgren: Dilbert is funny, but that's exactly the problem with this community, and it a lot of ways we've done it to ourselves. Changing perceptions about engineering really starts with the community itself. I gave the commencement address this year at the University of Texas at Austin, and my message to the graduates was that they have a responsibility to show their communities that engineers are valuable. Lawyers and doctors do pro bono work for their communities, why not engineers?
Design News: Are there any specific programs you can point to that encourages this type of community involvement?
Almgren: Purdue University has this wonderful program called EPICS, short for Engineering Projects in Community Service (http://epics.ecn.purdue.edu/). Essentially, it allows engineering students to earn course credits for doing some type of community work. The beauty of this program is that by connecting them with work that has some kind of positive societal impact, students seem to be more engaged in the engineering program. There is also better representation of minorities and females in the program.
Design News: How can working engineers make an impact?
Almgren: Get out there and do something positive for the community to show the value of engineering. If engineers spend their careers in a cube, they have failed this profession.