SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Laura Mather does her part to polish the tarnished image of engineers in America. She speaks at schools about her job producing software that guards banks and other businesses from cyber attacks.
“I tell them my job is really ‘CSI Computer’--its fun and awesome,” she says, riffing on the popular TV crime show series. “We are looking for bad guys,” says the co-founder of Silver Tail Systems, now part of EMC Corp.
Garrett Johnson does his part, too. The African-American chief executive of SendHub likes to disabuse his nephews of their blind adulation for professional basketball stars.
“I tell them if you made a pie of all the money earned from the five founders of Facebook and the five top NBA players, the Facebook founders would make up 98.5 percent of that pie,” he said, speaking at a panel discussion sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Both tech execs know the U.S. lags many other countries in science, math, engineering and technology education, aka STEM. And both know one of the root causes of that fact is that engineers are generally held in low regard in America, typically stereotyped as geeks and nerds.
“We need more role models who show science as high status, said Rebecca Blank, deputy secretary of commerce in the Obama Administration, speaking on the panel. “We need to send more messages that validate science as a career track,” she said.
Blank knows the figures well. Some thirteen percent of U.S. college grads have degrees in STEM fields compared to 25 to 30 percent in Germany and South Korea, she said.
The problem is even worse among females. Women make up half the U.S. workforce but less than 25 percent of the STEM workers and grads, Blank said. Changing attitudes in K-6 education is the key, she added.
Blank called on the private sector to do more by funding more STEM teachers, providing more internships and getting more engaged with local schools. “People have to live it a little bit,” she said.
Government has played an active role in the past, noted Aart de Geus, chief executive of Synopsys. “In the Kennedy era, the government was saying we have to go to moon—a strange goal in some ways--but out of this came a generation of investment in schools and technology--but more importantly the notion that science is cool,” he said on the panel.
The private sector tries to do its part. “At every science fair we attend our goal is to see how many young people we can make feel science is cool,” de Geus said.
Their discussion sparked me to ask, what are you doing to show science is cool?
Mostly, this kind of story just aggravates me. First, because people think that something so obviously great has to be made to look "cool," and then also that this has to be about money.
EE Times just finished publishing a survey that showed that NASA and Boeing were two of the top rated organizations to work for, according to US school grads, no? Is it a huge leap among kids to get that these jobs require STEM education? I can't see how.
Also, what's wrong with geeks and nurds? I mean what, as opposed to airheads or neanderthals?
The government can stay out of this, for the most part. The popular media might have more of a part, by cutting back on its emphasis on things shallow and trendy.
While I agree we should not have to make engineering "cool", we do need to address the overall image of engineers and scientists in our society.
Our TV image is one of evil scientist, rogue engineers, nasty hackers or just really boring people. Thank you holliwood.
The truth remains that engineering is not a career for the masses. You have to want to be an engineer. No amount of STEM classes will change that fact.
Yes we can slowly change the image, but the only way to address the future shortages is to find those young people who have the interest and desire to be a scientist or engineer and facilitate their path to become one. If we make the path attainable, then more will make the journey.
Just my opinion.
I doubt that many young people with talent in STEM really care much whether engineering is perceived as "cool." The ones I know through my college student daughter were always good at math & science, since grade school, and liked (or didn't dislike) those subjects.
As they got into high school and started thinking about college majors and careers, they naturally had questions about engineering -- some of them asked me about what I do and how much do I like it -- and none of them had a clue just how vast the engineering profession is and how many different career possibilities an engineering degree can lead to.
But the far bigger issue they now face as college graduation approaches in the next year or two is whether or not they will actually get to be working engineers -- whether anyone will offer them an engineering job, and in what city will that job be and what is the cost of living there relative to the salary?
To Bert's comment, at some level it does have to involve money, because these young grads want to know that they have chosen a profession in which it will not be impossible to get a job, or that if they do get a job, it will pay enough that they can have the kind of lifestyle they're hoping for -- to be able to someday buy a house, drive a decent car, raise a family and so on.
Nobody wants to study that hard, get those good grades, possibly take on student loan debt, and then graduate with that shiny new engineering degree only to discover that there are no jobs for them, that every engineering job listing requires a minimum 3-5 years experience which they obviously don't yet have and which they will never get if no company ever hires fresh-outs.
The question asked in the headline should not be "how do you show engineering can be 'cool'?" but "how do you show that engineering can be a career and not just a hobby?"
I think that you are right Frank. In some sense it is about the money. Our best and brightest want to be hedge fund managers, not engineers. When I look at women in STEM I see them clustering in a few areas like chemical, biomedical, and environmental engineering. So there is something to the fact that as the numbers of women rise in these fields even more women are attracted to them.
I would venture to say that virtually everyone that has a successful career in engineering started their pursuit because of a "coolness".
If it isn't cool, they will be out of engineering shortly after starting.
At least that's how it works in America, Europe and Britain.
Due to globalization (read China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Brazil) STEM has become too competitive. The need to come up constantly with new ideas and products has never been so high, and salaries in the West due to the high government taxes are under pressure, as an engineer in the West is still costing 2 to 3 times as much as in the upcoming countries. As a lawyer, or physician the professional field is evolving much slower and pressure is only local, not global.
In order to make engineering 'cool' to the masses, take a page out of the 'Hollywood Blockbuster Film Formula'
#1 Start with a car chase to grab their attention
#2 Add multiple explosions ... then add more.
#3 Wave a flag
#4 Have a gunfight (even better if accompanied by explosions)
#5 Show a love interest
#6 Add a few more explosions (while waving a flag)
#7 Show impossible technology saving the world
#8 Have the love interest blow something up
#9 Have another 10 thousand round gunfight that magically stops the moment the bad guy dies.
#10 Kiss the girl (surrounded by blown up wreckage, bullet holes and a flag waving in the background)
Follow this time tested formula and you're guaranteed to make engineering 'cool' ... either that or $150 million at the box office :)
Engineering can be made "cool" for the mass market by showing the connection to companies which make cool stuff: Google, Facebook, Apple, for example. Also Ford, GM, and Tesla. This connection must be made early in education (prior to high school), in order to inspire students to start on the path of STEM education. Engineering school is hard, and relatively few engineering grads will hit the start-up jackpot, so their passion must be fed by the intrinsic rewards of working in a creative profession, working on cool stuff (with tangible results), understanding how things work, and solving difficult problems.
"This connection must be made early in education"
Absolutely. My sister is a VP of Engineering at Boeing - in a recent STEM related interview, she stressed how growing up with a father who was an architect, industrial designer and always working on "cool" things was critical to her early interest in engineering. Like you, she believes that the "cool" of STEM needs to be introduced at a young age. I think that means schools need to have neat demonstrations, builder projects and so on to encourage an interest in design, making and innovation.
I agree with previous comments posted all of u. Engineering is amazingly cool. It is the individual, albeit a student or an engineer, to make the best out of it. It is not that much to credit for the best curriculum, the best lecturers, the schools or even the most popular companies dying to work for.
As some have earlier mentioned, such publicity only shows to non-engineering sector that engineering is lacking self esteem and hungry for recognition.
Still, the focus should be increasing the job value of engineering career because youngsters look forward to financial sustainabilty for retirement or at least a job to work for long term employment.
The "elephant in the room" is that even when there are engineering JOBS there aren't engineering CAREERS because at the first "excuse" (change of strategy) engineers get laid off instead of being retrained for the new requirement. Yes in many cases the position is just outsourced anyway, but even when that happens how frequently have you heard about the outgoing employee having to train the offshore replacement for his OWN job but unable to get the company to put up the resources to upgrade his skillset to the new "requirement" in the first place (assuming that isn't just an excuse too)? I'm old enough to remember when you could take your choice between a "tech track" and a "management track" and yes I do understand why that concept has been obsoleted by worldwide competition. But that just makes it REALLY hard to understand why the concept of "tenure" is still supported and valued in the field of education, but for the engineers who make up the "student body" for continuing education the very NOTION of a stable engineering career is wildly unrealistic! What's "good for the goose" isn't - oh never mind!! But I certainly agree that enticing young students into science fairs and robotic competitions and using "fun" experiences like that to lure them into a field where careers are next to impossible to achieve is just about criminal, although I don't seem to have as much support for that opinion as I would have thought.
JeffL_2, I don't put quite as negative a spin on it as you do -- plenty of us still have engineering careers in the U.S.
My point was that for the younger generation -- the focus of Rick's blog -- excellent grades and an engineering degree (especially an EE degree) are no assurance that they will even have a first job offer, let alone a long career doing engineering work.
A report last year by the NSF documented the statistical trends in the science & engineering labor foce and noted that "from 1993 to 2008, the median age of scientists and engineers in the U.S. workforce rose from 37 to 41. The proportion over age 50 increased from 18% to 27%." So overall, U.S. companies are not hiring younger engineers in sufficient quantity to bring down or to slow the increase in the average age of U.S. engineers.
We can all speculate as to the root causes of this trend, but I personally don't believe that the lack of perceived "coolness" of engineering, or lack of young people's interest in or skill in STEM has anything to do with it.
It is not true that all of our best & brightest young people want to be hedge fund managers, or have expectations of VP-level salaries a couple years after graduation. Many of them do in fact want to be scientists or engineers, and as "any1" mentioned earlier, you see more of them concentrating today in areas like biomedical and environmental engineering, or genetics or pharmaceuticals -- branches of science & engineering in which they foresee a potentially rewarding and stable career future.
Ask them what they think about circuit design or software design and you're likely to get an answer like "it's very interesting, but I'm not willing to move to India or China for a job."
I actually think the article makes a lot of sense. I am an EE, and so are almost everyone replying in this board, but guess what, that is the problem because we are that 13% that find engineering cool despite how popular culture label them. So of course we're puzzled and even offended that STEM has to be "made cool". But the rest of the world doesn't operate that way, why do you think kids are drawn to being rappers/pop stars and NBA players? Everything, good or bad, if you want people's attention to it needs marketing, STEM is no difference, and it's not that difficult. One simple example is the movie Iron Man and how kids find the main character who's a brilliant engineer super cool. God knows how many little seeds of engineering are plant inside the minds of youngsters watching that movie. As cheesy and even untrue that movie is, it does the proper marketing for STEM and we just need more of that!
Someone needs to design a cool looking touch screen Xbox 360 kit that enables the player to reprogram and alter the device software and hardware as the user sees fit.
How about convincing the Manufacturers to introduce a low priced kit version of an Xbox or similar gaming console that the kids can assemble, program, reprogram and change the performance of at their liking, best of all being that it's a kit the price can be lower than they are now.
In my youth it was Heath Kits that were the big thing and as a result many kids that I knew started out into Ham radio, Computers, Television and Test equipment careers.
I still build my own radios, my own test equipment to align maintain and repair these radios, my own PIC controllers to program and operate my radios, all simply because of the fascination with all those wonderful Heath Kits that my Mom would let me buy.
This is the only way that I can see to get some of these kids interested in something engineering related and give them some knowledge into how those expensive toys work other than simply manipulating the controls for 12 hours a day not learning a thing.
The biggest problem with STEM careers is that over the last 20 years 100K's of tech workers have been permanently eliminated from the U.S. workforce. All of these people have sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and so on, and none of them will tell those young people what a great career STEM is.
NO PR campaign can overcome that.
My husband is a BSEE and now a teacher at a private high school. We've created a Engineering 100 course that he is teaching this year for the first time to show kids how cool engineering is. He has guest speakers, mini-projects, and more to show kids what engineering is and can be. We're hoping to inspire many of them to not give up on math too early, and consider engineering as a career path. Here's a blog I wrote about this class...
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