The number of new engineering degrees is stuck in a stubborn plateau. Many professional engineers say it's not "cool" to be an engineer anymore; they cite the demise of TV characters like MacGyver, The Professor on Gilligan's Island, James Bond's gadget-maker "Q," and Mr. Scott on Star Trek.
In fact, some readers have even sent us plots for new sit-coms starring engineers as Handsome Leading Men (a la West Wing), not just techies building battlebots.
But short of going into the TV production business, is there anything we can do to encourage kids to get into engineering? The answer is yes-here are five profiles of engineers who have decided to make a difference, by walking into the country's classrooms and getting kids excited about the power of engineering.
Marshall Brain is founder and chairman of a website for kids who are curious about technology
Mike Carron is a coach for children's robotics and lego teams, and works to revamp his state's curriculum
Craig Condon gives co-op students hands-on experience in the auto industry
Andrew Farkas coaches a kids' robotics team
Daniel Frey is a professor at the nation's newest engineering school
These evangelizing engineers do have some encouraging trends on their side. A new study suggests that salaries and new job growth for the engineering industry both look good.
Employment in engineering occupations will increase 20% between 1998 and 2008, according to Science and Engineering Indicators 2000, a publication from the National Science Foundation (Arlington, VA). That's faster than U.S. employment as a whole, which is set to grow just 14% in the same period. Also, engineers tend to keep their jobs. In the NSF study, 1997 unemployment for them was 1.6%-much lower than the national unemployment of 4.9%.
So why aren't undergrads getting the message?
Looking closer, engineering enrollment saw two waves of growth this century-numbers shot up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the Cold War, Space Race, and Sputnik orbits; then numbers rose again in the 1980s with the large boost in academic R&D budgets, according to the study.
Now we're watching the baby-boomers age, and the U.S. college-aged population drop from 21.6 million in 1980 to 17.0 million in 2000. But the problem's more serious than that-trends suggest that high schools aren't teaching enough technology.
"The relatively low level of mathematics and science proficiency of U.S. 12th graders is evident among first-year college students," the NSF says. In 1997, 22% of freshmen who intended to major in science or engineering needed remedial work in mathematics. Another 10% needed help in science.
This decline comes as no surprise to DN readers, judging by the response we received to a recent editorial ("Role Models or Robots?" DN, 8/20/01). In dozens of letters you painted a bleak picture of the modern engineer, asked to work long hours for poor pay, compared to doctors, lawyers, and salesmen.
But our mailbag included just as many variations on this theme-"sometimes I have a hard time believing that I actually get paid to do what I do."
Also, the hours may be long, but the pay is not that bad. In 1997 (NSF's most recent data), median annual salary for the country's 1.37 million engineers was $60,000. That same year, the Design News reader salary survey (DN, 7/7/97) revealed a median salary of $55,000. And that number was up to $65,000 by 2001 (DN, 7/2/01).
Job title & Organization: Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Needham, MA
Bachelor of Aeronautical Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1987
Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering, University of Colorado, 1993
Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1997
Work experience: U.S. Navy aviation after Navy ROTC at RPI
Why I got into engineering: "I was originally a computer science major, but after field experience through the Navy, I was inspired to switch to aero engineering where I could design and analyze things that fly," says Frey.
Involvement with young people: "In the Navy, I had a taste of teaching aero to student aviators. I decided to take steps to become a professor, which took a while to accomplish, but is very rewarding."
Why this is important: "Its inherent reward is seeing young people get excited about building things and becoming more enthusiastic about designing things to function," Frey says. "After my daughter was born it was reinforced-watching her grow and learn-realizing more of the rewards of teaching and learning. These lead students to contribute to society and a higher standard of living, while being happy in their work doing something useful."
How engineers can get involved: The Massachusetts Department of Education is setting up an "engineering framework" to be taught in K-12 education (see www.doe.mass.edu), and these teachers will need help in its implementation from practicing engineers.
"There are also "steering" programs like FIRST and scouting merit badges," he says. "But perhaps the best way is for engineers to "impress" in their function as parents-just taking the time with kids to notice things and point out how they work-like cars, computers, and civil engineering projects. Things are around every day to point out and celebrate the work of engineers."
Job title & company: Founder and Chairman, Howstuffworks.com, Raleigh, NC
Educational background: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (B.S. in electrical engineering); North Carolina State University (M.S. in computer science).
Work experience: Taught part-time at a community college while working toward his M.S. degree. After graduating, Brain taught engineering and computer science for six years at North Carolina State. He then founded and ran a software development and training company and wrote 10 books-nine of them on advanced software, and the tenth called "Teenagers' Guide to the Real World," aimed at helping young people to create useful lives. He started Howstuffworks as a home-based hobby in 1998, writing articles at his kitchen table in the evenings and weekends-and soon found that he couldn't even respond to the email he received in that amount of time. "I had to make a decision," he says. "But this is what I was born to do, so it was an easy decision to make." In 2000, Howstuffworks.com found that two million people (PEOPLE, not hits) visited the site every month.
Why I got into engineering: Brain got into engineering by inheriting a passionate interest. "My father was a hard-core electrical engineer who built the stereo we used. It never occurred to me to be anything else."
Involvement with young people: As a teacher, Brain taught 17- to 19-year-olds. "They're a fantastic group of people, with tons of energy, very little baggage, and zillions of ideas-really high creativity-and they need to get a critical dose of exposure to engineering and technology early," he says. "Engineering doesn't publicize itself as being glamorous, and kids don't see role models the way they see doctors and lawyers on TV. There's no engineering in the public school system either, so kids don't easily find out how cool engineering is." To overcome the lack of engineering information, Brain gives talks to middle school, high school, and college students to introduce them to that idea-and of course also reaches them through the website.
How other engineers can get involved: Every engineer who loves what he does can do the same kind of thing close to home.
Job title & company: Senior Application Engineer, Square D Schneider Electric, Seneca, SC
Educational background: Associate Degree in Industrial Electronics from Tri-County Technical College, Pendleton, SC
Work experience: 15 years with Square D
Why I got into engineering: "I have always liked electronics and technology related projects," Carron says. "I grew up like most kids playing video games and enjoyed the advent of the home computer. The curiosity of how the computer worked and what could be done with it got me involved in engineering."
Involvement with young people: Carron is involved in three different programs. First, he is project manager for his local US FIRST robotics team, #343. Students from four area high schools cooperate to design and build a robot for national competition. Second, he is an advisor on the FIRST LEGO LEAGUE (FLL) program (the middle-school version of FIRST), for the South Carolina State Tournament.
Finally, he is on the advisory board for a new educational initiative-South Carolina has adopted the nationally recognized "Project Lead The Way," revamping middle- and high school curriculums to enhance science and technology.
Why this work is important: "These programs all form a win-win situation for me and my company," says Carron. "They allow me to provide a knowledge base to the students through mentorship, while honing (and maintaining) my technical skill-sets. The ultimate goal is to excite the science and technology curriculums so students pursue higher level engineering degrees. This has proven to work, since we have had at least four separate cases of students within our team go into engineering related backgrounds. Many of these students may ultimately become future Square D employees."
How other engineers can get involved: Carron's FIRST team website is www.metalinmotion.com, with links to other programs. Also see the national FIRST website at www.usfirst.org, and the Lego League website at www.firstlegoleague.org.
Job title & company: Tooling and Test Equipment Design Engineer, Pneutronics, Division of Parker Hannifin Corp., Hollis, NH
Educational background: A.S. & B.S. in Mechanical Engineering.
Why I got into engineering: "I realized at an early age that I wasn't satisfied with just knowing that something worked. I had to know how and why," Farkas says.
"I believe I was about 14 years old when I sat in the back yard with all my father's tools and proceeded to dismantle a broken lawnmower. I was constantly building projects with batteries, lights, and motors. In high school, I read that one of the possible jobs for an associate's degree in mechanical engineering was refrigeration and air conditioning repair. And so the journey began."
Involvement with young people: Farkas is involved with a local FIRST program, an aggressive, six-week "hands-on" program working with high school students to design, build, and ship a robot for a national competition. "We hold weekly engineering classes in preparation for the kickoff meeting. The students learn about power transmission, machining, micrometer and caliper use, brainstorming, and more," he says.
Farkas donates approximately 350 hours each season, but insists the program would not be successful without the rest of the team, including Monarch Instruments for donating space to work with the students.
Why this work is important: "I love to teach," he says. "Working with the students lets me introduce them to the creative side of engineering. I want the kids to learn that you can attack a difficult project in a short time and be successful.
"Every year I bring in one of my custom designed radio-controlled planes to show the kids how design engineering can be applied to their hobbies. These kids are the future of engineering. They are full of ideas and energy. I am opening a door to a future that many of them did not know existed. Many of my past professors went above and beyond the call of duty to help me, and now it's my turn."
How other engineers can get involved: The FIRST website is www.usfirst.org. If you are interested in starting a new team, Farkas recommends volunteering with an existing team for one season to see just how much work is involved.
Job title & company: EDT (Engineering, design, and testing) Supervisor, AB Division of Bosch, Farmington Hills, MI
B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Oakland University (Rochester, MI), 1987
M.S. in Electronics and Computer Control Systems, Wayne State University
Work experience: Condon has worked as a test validation engineer in the auto industry since 1987. He joined Bosch in 2000.
Why I became an engineer: "I have always wanted to understand how things work and improve their performance, which usually involves taking things apart!" he says. "For example, when I was in high school I wasn't satisfied with the speed of our lawnmower, so I made some adjustments to the governor on the carburetor so I could run it a lot faster. I also have many relatives in the engineering field, including my dad, who designed transmissions for 30+ years. Although I rarely discussed my dad's work with him, he invited me to live with him while I attended college. It was an easy choice for me to accept his offer."
Involvement with young people: "Part of my job involves working with co-op students," says Condon. "I always try to assign them jobs that involve design work of some kind and give them a "feel" for the numbers and how they relate to the world around them."
Why this work is important: Although they are already pursuing engineering degrees, some of the college students Condon works with have had little to no first-hand experience with such tasks as blueprint reading and working with hand tools.
"By giving them an opportunity to gain some hands-on experience and learn more about engineering, I hope that I am helping jump-start their careers," he says.
How engineers can get involved: Bosch participates in a student co-op program with Kettering University. Many engineering schools offer students an opportunity to gain off-campus work experience at local companies through paid internships or co-op programs. Contact local universities for details.