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?
"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.
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.
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 :)
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.