Since the mid-1980s, interest in science and engineering in the U.S. has
waned. There are many organizations working to improve interest in science,
technology, engineering, and math. But our efforts have not had a significant
impact. Perhaps our most embarrassing statistic is the incredibly low
participation of females and underrepresented minorities in our profession. My
discipline, electrical engineering, is one of the worst in this category.
As engineers, we often joke that we are either terrible at marketing or that we leave the marketing to business majors or engineers who have undergone a full frontal lobotomy. Unfortunately, our hubris is precisely the reason we can't get children interested in our profession.
Our education system has its own challenges in this area. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study reports (http://rbi.ims.ca/4385-536) show on a consistant basis that children in the United States, on average, significantly underperform in math and science compared to the children in other technically developed nations.
I am inspired by the commitment I see on the part of engineering educators to improve the situation. A couple of examples of absolutely world-class efforts are Tufts University Center for Engineering Educational Outreach (CEEO, www.ceeo.tufts.edu) and the Infinity Project from the Center for Engineering Excellence at the Southern Methodist University School of Engineering (Infinity Project, www.infinity-project.org).
The global economy is the only agent that will change the interest in our profession. Still, I believe we each have an obligation to be ambassadors for our profession to encourage children to pursue a career in engineering.
For starters, we should advise strong math students that engineering degrees are the most versatile degrees on the planet. Even if these students never practice engineering again, they'll be able to enter any profession.
Second, we should seek out opportunities to market ourselves and our profession to children. But be careful! Just talking at career day is probably not going to make a difference. You need to be fun and cool. Also, find a female scientist or engineer to go to the class—this might show a few more girls that it's OK to enter our profession. A much better tactic is to work directly with the teachers so that they are more comfortable integrating technology in the classroom.
At National Instruments, we have a program in cooperation with The University of Texas College of Engineering called the Design Technology and Engineering for America's Children (DTEACh) project (http://rbi.ims.ca/4385-537). In this program, we show primarily elementary school teachers how to use LEGO Mindstorms in their classrooms. In addition, we pair each "DTEACher" with a volunteer from NI. We now have more than 200 volunteers (mostly engineers) in the Central Texas area who represent almost 20 percent of our technical workforce at NI Austin.
If you really want to be aggressive, consider hooking up with a local Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program. EPICS is the largest nationally organized service learning program for engineers (EPICS, http://rbi.ims.ca/4385-538).
Engineers are heroes, but our challenge is making sure we're the type of heroes children look up to and aspire to be.
Reach Almgren at email@example.com.