For young kids in particular, demonstrating the application of abstract technologies is the key to building interest in engineering.
Hey, kids, here are five reasons why you should consider an engineering career:
Drs. Tom Bruno and Tara Lovestead.
The last two are entwined with the first three.
Bruno and Lovestead are research chemists at the National institute of Science and Technology (NIST) who have reported a novel approach to finding where hidden bodies are buried. Their work--and how it's being publicized--are important signs that societal attitudes toward engineers are moving in a positive direction.
Their method was touted in a recent NIST announcement that played up the CSI angle: How do you find buried corpses that killers don't want found?
Hollywood has made finding corpses sexy, but the bigger applications for the detection method are homeland security (explosives) and food safety (poultry spoilage).
Here's the technology: Lovestead and Bruno, writing in Analytical Chemistry as well as Forsensic Science International, describe a high sensitivity, dynamic headspace analysis technology that uses cryoadsorption on short-alumina-coated PLOT (porous layer open tubular) columns. (See graphics below).
How it works: The PLOT column, using a motorized pipette, sucks in air samples at ambient temperatures. This is done just above the surface of the soil (or even cement, in the case of mob hits) or is inserted in the soil or a drilled hole in the cement. The device detects trace amounts of ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen (NRN) that collects in air pockets above and close to gravesoil.
"You're looking for nitrogen compounds that fix onto ninhydrin, a chemical used to bring out latent fingerprints," Bruno said in an interview. "Investigators always carry a can of this with them."
This trapped decomposing protein is put into a solution of ninhydrin (2,2-Dihydroxyindane-1,3-dione, for those taking notes) and, when combined, it fluoresces--what's known in the business as Ruhemann's purple.
The NIST team used alumina as the adsorbent but believes that silica, porous polymers, clays, organo-clays, and porous graphite works as well.
Why is this cool? Because headspace analysis
is tricky when you're dealing with low volatility compounds (i.e.
proteins) and compounds in trace amounts. It requires long collection
periods, and existing trap instruments just aren't sensitive enough.
NIST is working with a well-known systems company to commercialize the technology. Something could come to market within a year. (Bruno wouldn't tell me which company, and I suspect if he had, I'd end up in a future grave-detecting experiment).
Beyond corpse detection
This application is really more important in explosives detection and food safety (and represents, arguably a bigger and more profitable market than forensics).
In the paper for Analytical Chemistry, the authors point out the importance:
High explosives have extremely low vapor pressures, making detection of the explosive difficult. And some components that vaporize easily in plastic bonded explosives (C4 or Semtex, for example) have legitimate uses.
Bruno uses an example of a shipping container aboard a freighter. How can you efficiently and cost-effectively run security checks on the contents?
"What makes this approach unique is that the trap is a capillary. It's really tiny. At low temperatures, it's very efficient. We can trap, no problem, 1 part per billion and do analysis of it," he said.
Why should we care about this? Slowly, Hollywood is changing its tune about science, shifting away from the portrayals of scientists and engineers as pocket protector-wearing social goobers to highlighting heroic characters in shows like CSI and Numbers. NIST's communications team has picked up on the vibe.
Demonstrating the application of abstract technologies is the key to building interest among kids. Thousands of teenagers are now streaming into swelling forensic-science degree programs across the country. Those departments are just a stone's throw from the engineering school.
Going through school I found that a good teacher makes all the difference in the world. My best example was two chemistry professors. Both had PhDs. One was great at explaining the subject, and had a great rapport with the students. As a result I was inspired to learn more. A wonderful experience. The other one, while quite knowledgeable about the subject, was not very good at explaining the subject matter and his people skills left much to be desired. An altogether dreadful experience. Getting very good teachers, and keeping them, could do much to draw more students towards engineering.
Maybe its as simple as just asking incoming Freshman engineering students this question: "With all of the perceived negatives associated with engineering these days, what factors made you decide on engineering as a career?". The answers might provide us with some good data on how to motivate others.
Rich raises an interesting point: is there a fixed percentage of a population that can succeed and enjoy engineering (be it in North America or China or India)?
Charles provides part of the answer: we won't know until we dive in with our time and help out/find out.
Thank you for this article. I have the honor of working with a wonderful Summer Engineering Camp designed to help students enter the area of engineering and IT at a community college. The program is a great success and the students are having a lot of fun and learning. We can blame television all we want, or we can get involve. Engineering, like any science field of study, is going to require a lot of math. We need to stop telling young children that math is hard. Math is challenging, but math is also fun. By having our students enroll in only the basic math classes at the high school level doesn’t prepare our students for engineering and computer science programs at many community colleges and four-year colleges/universities around the Country. Also, those of us that are employed in the engineering and computer science area have a role to play too. We can encourage our company management to contact their local community college or four-year colleges/universities in their area to start a yearly scholarship for about $500 - $5,000. Many people will be surprise at how this will help a student with their educational expenses and have them take a good look at a career in the engineering field. Engineers can also serve on local community colleges and four-year colleges/universities advisory board to review their curriculum to ensure that it is current for today’s job market. In terms of high school job fairs, counselors need help from the community. So if you are an engineer or a computer science specialist in your area, many high schools counselors will be happy to have you share information about a career in engineering. Once again, we can blame the television, but we must play our role within the community too so we can help attract bright students into the area of engineering and computer science. Oh yea, a letter to Hollywood producers does work.
I also think television creates a false perception of how long it takes to actually make a GOOD product or solve a problem. I'm sure that many wish that things could be accomplished in "60 minutes or less", but of course that is not the reality. All of this seems to support the "quick return" perception that permeates the investment world and the "slow pace" frustration exhibited by many younger engineers and project managers.
Wonder what television programs the iPhone 4G design team watch???
I think Brian hit the nail on the head. Television can make any job look interesting. A few examples I can think of: ice trucking, crab fishing, logging ... all I'm sure are painfully boring and repetitive occupations. But with the appropriate background music and fabricated drama things appear much more stimulating..
Certainly it's the dreaded "S" word (science) but it's also the dreaded "W" word: work. An old high school friend of mine does CSI work for a small police department north of San Francisco. He says the work is dreadful, dirty and dull. The show, he says, loses its allure after you've pulled the 30th cigarette butt out of a filthy car.
My teenagers tell me that whenever they have a presentation on careers from the guidance counselors at school, there is a ton of interest in forensic science, thanks to shows like CSI.
But when the kids find out how much math & science they have to take to have such a career (yes, there's a reason forensic science has the word "science" in it!), most of them run for the hills.
It is fascinating to watch and learn more and more by actually watching the tele-shows like CSI, Bigbang, numb3rs, house etc. I do not know if its me or the new shows on television are using more and more scientific knowledge to corroborate the things they do. I am not saying that all the knowledge that these "entertainment" show present can be useful in real case scenario but atleast they tell/show/use the latest technology.