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Role models or robots?

Role models or robots?

My company's research department recently hosted a dinner at which the CEOs of several major engineering companies talked about significant business challenges they're facing. Although they disagreed a lot, they were in complete accord about the scarcity of engineering talent.

It's enough to give any high-tech exec heartburn. Despite growing demand for workers with technical skills, U.S. universities hand out approximately 20% fewer engineering degrees than they did 15 years ago. Yet schools continue to churn out lawyers, doctors, and MBAs in prodigious numbers.

What's going on? One argument is that engineering today is perceived as an unglamorous, math-intensive profession that has few real role models for kids. I'd seriously question whether anyone actually looks up to any lawyers today, either. But I suppose it couldn't hurt to take engineering to Hollywood and do what, say, ER did for the medical profession.

James Woods, who actually studied at MIT before dropping out to become an actor, would be my pick to play Chief Engineer. Granted, he'd be a sinister Chief Engineer, but he'd be able to balance an equation convincingly.

Kids really don't need any more reasons to watch TV. What we ought to be thinking about is how to acquaint them with the world of engineering in ways that truly engage them. Inventor Dean Kamen has the right idea. A decade ago, he founded the FIRST Robotics Competition. This national program teams high school students with engineers from local companies and universities to design and build robots. The FIRST LEGO League Competition seeks to get the message out that engineering can be fun to even younger kids.

These students not only get a better understanding of how math and science relate to the real world, they also actually get to be design engineers. The experience is so powerful and so positive that many of them ultimately go on to study engineering in college.

What attracted you to engineering? How does your experience translate to the next generation of potential engineers? Drop me a line, and I'll share your thoughts in a future column.

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