WASHINGTON -- Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, is using her notoriety to promote U.S. science and engineering education. Ride also wants more women to pursue careers in engineering. This is a good thing since the profession needs all the new blood and fresh ideas it can get.
"When I was a girl, I had a teacher who encouraged my interest in science," Ride recalls. "She helped build my self-confidence. All these things helped me to become a scientist and and astronaut."
While studying physics at Stanford University in the 1970s, Ride says she still remembers the day NASA ran an ad in the student newspaper seeking astronaut candidates. She made it into Earth orbit aboard the shuttle Challenger in June 1983.
Among Ride's engineering initiatives is the Sally Ride Science Academy. Three academies are underway this summer, including one this week in the Washington, DC, area.
Raising awareness of the importance of science and engineering education is laudable. There are many similar efforts around the country -- EE Times is a media sponsor for the inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival on the Mall in Washington in October. But one reality is that it took an earth-shaking event -- the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union on 1957 -- to reinvigorate American science and engineering education.
Ride recently appeared on a radio talk show to promote her engineering education initiative. At least one female engineering student called in to say she was not optimistic about finding a job. This is another reality: Many U.S. companies, including technology companies, have chosen to sit on huge piles of cash rather than investing it in new engineering talent. This short-sighted gimmick for propping up company stock prices (and executives' stock option portfolios) is delaying an economic recovery and harming U.S. competitiveness.
We continue to support any and all efforts to promote U.S. science and engineering education. Technology companies should do the same, preferably with cash and new hires.
If my sampling of kids coming out of university with engineering degrees is any indication of our committment to engineering in this country...I am fearful for the future of this country.
Most of the kids, that I know, coming out of school (with a bachelor's degree) these days consider themselves blessed to find a job that pays even $20 per hour.
When they go to recruiters looking for a job, they get told to go back to school and get a degree.....in something else....
We are better than this.....
35 years ago I and my highschool friends could not wait to get our drivers license and an old car. Driving and fixing the car was fun. 3 years ago my son and his highschool friends showed little interest in cars or the engineering that went into them. Their interest is social interaction as ours was engineering and cars. I doubt that television could done more to get young people interested in engineering. And there are attempts. Mythbusters was entertaining and conveyed the sweetness of failures and successes in science. How many college students did this show inspire to pursue science and tech? Not too many, I'd think. I am very curious to see what our kids will end up doing for a career.
Agreed, finding a job in the aerospace industry is difficult at the moment, and likely to remain so for some time. I spent 14 years as a contractor to NASA/JSC with MITRE and then Draper Laboratory; I would find it hard to recommend aerospace to an engineering student unless that student was highly motivated to begin with. I think you need to nurture a love of science way sooner than the university: sometime in grammar school kids begin to find out what they are interested in and not interested in, at least in a general way. As to glamorizing engineering or science in film, hm... there are some pretty neat stories out there, but I can't see the excitement that you would want being generated by the stories of the likes of Sikorsky, Armstrong, Boeing, Goddard: you pick. (Although these stories might fascinate me or you!) Screenplays require drama, and I'm not sure where the drama is in my job. (My daughter, by the way, delights in telling me that I'm dull. Perhaps.) The interest and sometimes even excitement are there, but I can barely communicate this to lay adults, let alone my kids. Engineers, I think, would work for free if they could afford it: this isn't perhaps the best advertisement for the career, though.
With hundreds of Space Shuttle workers being laid off in Florida, Texas and Alabama finding a job in space work becomes hard. When potential engineers choose their career path this disheartening news makes them wonder how they will earn a living in the next frontier. We need more than a festival on the Washington Mall to light the fire under future scientists and technologits; we need more interdisciplinary programs at universities and get some "boob tube" time to make it interesting and fun to become engineers. Any screenpalys out there that Hollywood would be interested in producing, and in 3-D for that matter?
Getting the "young 'uns" interested in engineering is an interesting problem. Dr. Ride has a particular interest in this area, and that's a good thing, as she is an iconic figure in space/science/engineering. Certainly, she has easier access to the audience than say, I might. That aside, the more basic question is "why are so few students interested in engineering or science?" There are two aspects here: one is that for every person who has a bend or interest in engineering or science, there are 50 who don't. And of the 50 who don't, I propose a controversial explanation: many have been brainwashed away from the hard discipline of (engineering, law, medicine, science: insert your favorite) by television. Starting with the flicker cuts of Sesame Street and moving on, kids spend an astonishing amount of time locked into (what used to be called) the boob tube. And I suspect that something that might have been nurtured is squashed and pushed aside. Your mileage may vary: I'd like to hear your opinion. This is an important issue: the newcomers to our respective fields have to carry the torch on for us.
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