One of biggest challenges facing the U.S. today is that we're not producing enough engineers who can envision and build real, working machines. Today's engineers have an overabundance of software knowledge, but far too few can devise products that put software to work.
Somewhere along the line, we've lost touch with the real world. Kids don't build tree houses anymore, they don't fix bikes, and when they start driving, they can't service their own cars. They lack “hands on” knowledge of anything short of a computer keyboard and joystick. Sadly, there are kids who've never worn a baseball glove or held a bat in their hands, but know the ins and outs of MLB and Madden NFL on their computers.
While computer savvy is important today, we've sacrificed anything resembling practical application, like what you get when you build something with a box of Legos. And we've put far too much emphasis on specialization, to the point where no one seems to be able to keep the broader picture in mind when developing something new. People aren't capable of working together on a project because no one can visualize the other guy's viewpoint. The software engineer doesn't realize that the 500-lb. flywheel isn't going to be happy if you try to accelerate it from 0 to 1,000 rpm in a quarter second.
We're misleading kids today. We put far too much emphasis on sports and athleticism compared to basic intelligence and good, old-fashioned horse sense. And it's showing up in what we're turning out in the way of young engineers. They walk around with blinders on, and most of them would be incapable of building a basic coaster wagon from scratch using junk laying around the garage. And few of them have the foggiest idea of fiscal responsibility in the design process.
Many people think engineers are geeks with pocket protectors and medical tape holding their horn-rimmed glasses together. They don't realize we'd still be living in caves and rubbing sticks together for heat if it weren't for engineering. Engineering is the basis of life as we know it today, but it is most often portrayed as little more than a necessary evil. There's no glamour in it, and its only draw is the ability to make a living if you can't thread a needle with a football at 50 yards.
A classic example is NASCAR racing. How many fans realize it is an engineering sport, first and foremost? How many fans think the cars are all the same, and it's the guy driving that determines who wins? People cheer for Jimmie Johnson, not Chad Knaus, although Knaus has more influence than the driver as to whether car No. 48 gets to the victory lane on any given track, on any given weekend.
In a race, Chad may be sitting in front of a laptop, but his talent is knowing what to do with the information coming in. He knows how the weather will influence the car and the track surface. He understands how tire pressure will affect the coefficient of friction of the rubber compound with respect to the track surface. He choreographs the movements of the pit crew to service Jimmie's car and get it back on track in the shortest possible time. Knaus is the consummate engineer, the guy behind the scenes mastering the variables of nature and physics while someone else gets the glory.
There is little in life that hasn't been the result of engineering in one form or another. Engineering is really pretty cool, and if exposed to it early enough, kids can start developing engineering talents while they still have the natural hands-on tendency and an instinctive curiosity of the real world.
Dennis C., via e-mail