Programs that introduce engineering to school children make headlines today.
Project Lead the Way, Childhood Design & Engineering, and other efforts are noble attempts to show youngsters what engineering can be like.
I have some advice for people trying to give kids the idea that engineering can be cool: Remember that your audience is naive about most things technical. This chestnut of wisdom is based on my own experience attending a similar program by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Back in the 1960s, the SAE invited my science class to visit a company supplying manufacturing equipment to automakers.
The organizers certainly had the best of intentions. But you need to understand what that visit was like from the viewpoint of a junior-high schooler. Picture in your mind TV’s South Park kids turned loose in a factory. That day, we were just as clueless as those cartoon characters.
My dimming recollection of the trip is one of being bored to tears with most of it. We started with an introduction from a high-level manager who tried to explain what the plant did. He lost all of us completely after two sentences. What followed was the slowest half hour of my short life as he droned on oblivious to his listeners all looking down at their shoes.
Next came a tour of the factory. The guy who to ok us through talked a lot. None of it made any sense to us. The only real knowledge we came away with was that factories are dark, grimy places full of machinery and noise.
Finally we visited with what I thought were a bunch of engineers. I didn’t figure out who they really were until I was in my own career: These were draftsmen. For years after that, I thought engineers spent most of their time at drafting boards.
I am not sure we ever really met a practicing engineer that morning. But there wouldn’t have been much to see little more than someone at a desk with a few open catalogs and a slide rule.
Things picked up a bit after we left the factory to go downtown where we sat in on an SAE function. One of the speakers was the recipient of SAE’s Outstanding Young Engineer Award, an honor the organization still gives out today. None of my group got much out of what he said. But he was the youngest person we’d seen that day in a suit, and the only one we’d seen with a beard.
At least to my young mind, he made a good impression, even if I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I wished we could have spent more time listening to him instead of to the mind-numbing presentations we’d gotten.
Thankfully, most programs introducing kids to technology today use a lot more creativity than the modest endeavors of four decades ago. And they build in more time with people like SAE’s Outstanding Young Engineer. In my case, it would be accurate to say I pursued an engineering career despite the SAE’s inadvertent attempt to convince me it was a boring field.