Agreed, having simply a bunch of students who have been exposed to STEM won't make more engineers. You almost are born one. My wife is a Mental Health Counselor and views my colleagues and I as "different" in how we think and make decisions. Not that our methods are bad, just different.
For those who would be good canadiates, ecconomics makes a big difference. If you are not sure about your job security in engineering, other professions look better. My daughter had plenty of STEM exposure and capability but she decided on an IT project management path. Why? She saw how I worked and worried about having a job next week (or didn't get a raise for years) and that wasn't for her. Engineers like logical decisions and most management seem to decide something arbratary from week to week. There is no support from business for Engineers, they are a cost drain for a company, not a resource to be valued.
I grew up during the space race and got excited with engineering partially because society valued those guys who had the "right stuff" and everybody involved. Now society values Reality TV and how extreme things can be. Engineering reflects society's direction since our projects only get funded if there is a demand.
"Getting the government to fund STEM programs--as well as English-lit and art programs, among others--simply distorts supply and demand."
"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."
@williamlweaver: There are definitely aspects of our culture which undermine academic achievement; for example, it's considered perfectly normal and socially acceptable to say, "I'm no good at math."
My Chinese friends tell me that no one would dream of saying this in China; not because Chinese people are naturally better at math, but because it would be deeply embarassing. It would be like admitting that you can't read or write. And, in fact, since it's simply not considered socially acceptable to be bad at math, most people in China are proficient in basic math.
Attitudes towards teachers in the U.S. also seem to be less respectful than in many other countries, and attitudes towards education seem to be more lax. My daughters grew up in El Salvador and moved to the U.S. as teenagers. In the first year, they were in a bilingual education program. After the first year, my older daughter graduated and went on to community college, and my younger daughter moved into the regular program at the high school.
During my younger daughter's first week of regular classes, I noticed that she always seemed to be on the couch watching TV when I got home. The previous year, when she was in bilingual classes, I would usually find her doing homework.
"What's going on?" I asked. "How come you're not doing your homework?"
"I don't have any," she said.
"What do you mean?" I said. "Aren't they giving you any homework?"
"Yeah, but hardly any, and I do it all in class," she said. "The regular teachers don't give as much homework, because they know the kids won't do it."
I was skeptical, but my older daughter backed her up. She said that the regular students (who, for the most part, were either born or grew up in the U.S.) were much worse-behaved than the bilingual students. Unlike the bilingual students -- most of whom grew up in Mexico or Central America, and had been taught to respect teachers and value education, even if their own parents were not well-educated -- the regular students were rebellious and disrespectful. As a result, the regular teachers had to spend more of their time trying to control the classroom, instead of teaching.
Granted, this is in a below-average school district (we are planning to move to a better one), but I suspect the underlying cultural attitudes are not too different, even in the best school districts.
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.
Fifty-six-year-old Pasquale Russo has been doing metalwork for more than 30 years in a tiny southern Italy village. Many craftsmen like him brought with them fabrication skills when they came from the Old World to America.
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