In BusinessWeek Sophie Vandebroek writes about why the US must promote engineering. She doesn't really do a good job at saying why though and I think her article is more of a how. She doesn't say why the US would be better off with more engineers or with discouraging fewer people from staying away from the field. And while I agree with her general premise, some of her points seem too out of line for me to ignore.
First, kids should experience early on how much fun science is. In my family, we encouraged our children to treat the world as their laboratory. As my now-22-year-old engineer daughter, Nena, can attest, she and her brothers watched minimal television throughout elementary and middle school, so they were left to find more creative ways to spend their time. Their afternoons regularly involved digging for bugs, building furniture for their fort, and constructing makeshift dams across the sidewalk after rainstorms.
Great that she didn't let her kids watch TV but she fails to realize that her own background (she's the CTO at Xerox) enabled her to give those lessons to her children. Being an engineer is a decidedly middle class, sometimes upper class, career. It's true that technicians, and mechanics and carpenters and many blue collar workers do excellent jobs at convincing their kids to go to school for engineering but many more parents don't convey that message. Not because they're too good for it, but because just as many kids don't know what an engineer does many adults don't either. And if you grew up and your parents were nurses or secretaries you may not know anything about engineering. I like getting parents involved, but it's not people working in STEM already whose kids we need to reach. It's the kids who no one bothers to tell them what an engineer does or why they might like it.
Second of all, my sister and I (though we watched TV) had a similarly creative upbringing. But we didn't spend hours building dirt forts, rather we spent hours writing creative stories or writing computer programs. Not everyone's path to engineering is the same and I think the implication that all kids need to build stuff when not every engineering career is even remotely like that is a rather closed minded way of recruiting kids. If you like programming, or like solving problems, or like writing reports it doesn't mean you shouldn't go into engineering because all these skills are in the field as well.
The author also talks about expanding green cards and trying to encourage immigrants to stay here after college rather than going back home. But I have to disagree with her there. It's good to have a flexible immigration policy that allows for new people and new ideas but with our economy still bleeding jobs and with the great many engineers out of work I know I'd rather focus on recruiting underrepresented minorities into the field instead of foreigners.
Over at Under the Microscope they talk about a program to recruit girls into engineering, Spark Talented Minority Girls' Interest in Engineering, Female Recruits Explore Engineering (FREE). A mouthful I know. Funded by the NSF the program follows and guides young women from high school, through college, and into their career.
The FREE project focus group included mostly minority girls from Ohio, Colorado, and Iowa from the following additional demographics: most came from low socioeconomic backgrounds; all were recruited through their schools; all were girls who were strong academically in both math and science; none had family members or extended family members that were engineers (to ensure few preconceived notions of engineering); none had decided with any level of certainty on one field; and all of the girls agreed to simply explore engineering as an option.
I really like how we're showing engineering to people even if they don't choose it as a career. I would love for more professionals to just know about what engineering is not necessarily that everyone needs to pursue it. In this case they were doing a study on these girls so hence their goals of not choosing girls who had family members who were engineers, but I think that goal is fantastic. Not that girls and minorities who are related to engineers don't need the help and guidance, but clearly that's not the demographic we're having trouble reaching. I think perhaps that's a noble goal for outreach programs to target only people who would not otherwise participate.