Do we need more engineers and scientists in the first place? A few years ago, we had a flood of engineers out of jobs. The situation has gotten better recently, but we'll always experience an ebb and flow of needs for technical people. Today, companies beg for experienced machinists, tool-and-die makers, and industrial electricians. In a few years, who knows what skills and education companies will need. Getting the government to fund STEM programs--as well as English-lit and art programs, among others--simply distorts supply and demand. From what I see, we have plenty of students who get science and engineering degrees. I'd like to see statistics and studies that document "shortages" of people in engineering and science. I bet we would find a need for mining and petroleum engineers, and perhaps geologists right now. After we drill a lot of gas and oil wells, we'll need chemical engineers. Or perhaps not. Who knows?
That said, it can't hurt to kindle technical interests with science fairs, robotics competitions, electronic-educational kits, and after-school activities. But we individuals stand a better chance at getting kids and grandkids interested in technology than STEM programs in schools.
@Alex, I'm going to narrow it down even further. The impediment between Engineering and Cool lies somewhere between Middle School and High School. I had the great pleasure of judging at the recent 2012 Sea Perch Competition here in Philadelphia. I judged the High School poster presentations in the morning and the Middle School posters in the afternoon. Each team brought their developed underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to the Drexel University swimming pool for an underwater obstacle course and simulated rescue mission. The teams were then asked to pose as a Navy contractor and "sell" their ROV system to Navy representatives (the judges).
The High School students did an admirable job but the Middle School kids blew me away. Teams of 6 - 12 students, team T-shirts, rally-paint, one school even had a school-wide pep-rally for the team the day before and then brought along their cheer squad and mascot along to the competition. The students were engaged, excited, professional, and supportive of each-others knowledge of physics and engineering.
Somewhere between the ages of 11 - 14, that excitement is crushed and only the true scientists and engineers that have the wherewithal to withstand cultural labels and hurtful stereotypes continue on. So perhaps the comments along the lines of scientists and engineers are "born that way" and that it is not a lifestyle choice are correct. I just find it ironic that a culture that relies so heavily on science and technology has such a cultural bias against those in the field...
William, we've talked about this before (you've recommended it before), and I agree with you that the idea of "Geek Chic" would be a big way of improving the inflow of talented students into STEM and subsequently into engineering. Unfortunately, all attempts to make engineering cool seem to have failed and seem destined to fail. Consider that the statement "engineering is cool" is itself uncool. So there's an almost tautological impediment. What IS helping the most, practically speaking, is the glut of lawyers. Maybe some of those smart kids who realize law school is not longer a ticket to the good life will opt for engineering instead.
This subject makes me think of H1-B visas, and of foreign students at crowded US universities.
I asked both senators and my congressman about their position on H1-B recently. I have yet to receive a response from any of them. They're supposed to "REPRESENT" me as one of their constituents, but how can I be sure that they are in fact doing that when they ignore simple requests?
I know it's off topic, but I agree entirely with what you said about "MythBusters". Here I am waiting for the new season and then after an hour I'm trying to figure out where the show went wrong. They used to make you think, and remember a few physics lessons and now it's just nonsense.
I don't know exactly how "STEM" works, but there seems to be an assumption that you can just take anyone and turn them into an engineer by putting them through the right program. I don't think it works that way. Definitely encouraging students who exhibit the right raw material is a good idea, but shoving everyone through a funnel and hoping they all come out the same is a bad idea.
I believe there are many students who will never do well in math and science, just as there are many students who will never do well in the arts, or history, or whatever.
I think that teachers who recognize each student's strengths at an early age, and encourage them toward their strong areas is crucial to the process of getting the right students on the right career path.
The comments on how the government should spend more on science and less on sociology serve to illustrate why the government should probably get out of it. If you are a sociologist you see it one way, if you are an engineer you see it another. There is really no logical way to manage this.
I think that many college bound students actually pay a lot of attention to demand and wage forecasts. The reason so many people are going into the medical field is the perception of demand, stability, and a resonable wage. I have observed this process in many youg adults. They seem to look for a field that will offer money, security, and a level of effort that they can tolerate. (I don't really agree with this approach to career selection, but I see it play out over and over.)
If industry needs more engineers, they better paint a picture of long term stability, demand, and reasonable wages. The current generation of students is much less likely to work hard for something that doesn't pay them generously for their efforts.
I agree that changing the image of engineers would be a positive thing.
WW, I completely agree with the thought, but disagree that it would work. Take your example of Mythbusters.
The early episodes of the show had a lot more of the science, a lot more smaller experiments. Recent episodes are more like traditional reality shows, with a lot of talking personalities instead of the action of building.
Mythbusters follows your statement "Hollywood reflects culture". "Staged Reality" is popular, so Mythbusters contorted itself to be more popular.
Beth, when I said de-support other fields I was talking about government support.Quite frankly, someone who is not going into teaching but goes into English or Philosophy is probably not going to help drive the economy.Thus, I would not want to see the government support them.That does not mean that educational institutions or others won't.These individuals will typically be going into other fields anyway.I was talking to some people we know locally and their daughter was there visiting from college.She was studying Conflict Resolution. Her interest is foreign service.Does that qualify as something we as a people should support with tax dollars.For teaching of non-technical school classes we have state teaching colleges all over this country.This is appropriate.People will go into those other fields on their own.Their ability to get jobs, in any country, in those fields outside of teaching are limited.I do value these other fields, don't get me wrong.When I was a senior in high school I was taking pre-engineering and physics and calculus as a senior.I also tutored 10th grade English students.The teacher I worked for had a PhD in American Literature.She was great.I really valued the experience.When I went to Villanova we were required to take a full liberal arts curriculum in addition to our majors throughout the school.I really enjoyed that.
I would like to add that in our school district here in Illinois we have wonderful teachers.We also have a strong STEM program.As a member of the IEEE and the Chair of a society locally I am very aware of, and getting involved in, our programs to support STEM education.This is perhaps not typical, but it is a grass roots program with lots of parent participation.We are told constantly that China and India have all these educated engineers and that is one of the reasons they are able to compete.As long as we are supporting education through the government, that support should be targeted to the needs of the society.
See there, you got me going on this. I could say more.
@Alex this is an easy one. You want more people in STEM? Make Geek Chic. Replace "American Idol" with "American Inventor". After "Desperate Housewives" finishes its run, fill the time slot with "Myth Busters". Fund Robotics Competitions in Middle and High Schools (Sea Perch, FIRST Robotics). Make more shows like "Big Bang Theory" and "Chuck".
Hollywood both reflects and forms culture. Make STEM folks "rock stars" instead of Nerds and problem is solved instantly.
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