The pain and pride of growing up STEM: Here are some hints about what your family may be going through from someone who has been there.
"Misunderstood, we are," engineers have lamented over the years -- often, but not always, in Yoda Speak.
The topic used to pop up every so often on Embedded.com -- mostly from embedded systems programmers -- and EE Times's EE Life: Electrical engineers, especially those who write code, bemoan the fact that they have trouble explaining their chosen profession to the average layperson at a party and even to their own families. Invariably, engineers seemed to give up on the explanation and instead were suckered into fixing the neighbor's PC.
Society and technology have progressed since then, and so it's quite possible that the average, non-technical person knows what a computer programmer is (well, maybe) and a bit about what one does (maybe). As we anticipate the post-PC era, explaining what an electrical engineer or software developer does just isn't a challenge anymore. (Now we have Big Bang Theory and more focus paid to increasing science education.) Is it becoming the golden age of the engineer? Maybe.
Even so, engineers still complain that their non-engineering-minded spouses and kids don't get the EE ethos.
I posit the opposite is true: Your family knows only too well how you are. Your family isn't misunderstanding you. You're misunderstanding them. In other words, you've scarred them for life.
Don't get me wrong: I don't buy into the negative stereotypes that say an engineer is socially inept, insensitive, or geeky. I prefer capable, intelligent, devoted, steady... Your family loves you and is proud of your achievements, but sometimes they have to compensate a little, especially if they did not inherit the engineering gene.
Here are some of a family's coping mechanisms and the behavior (of yours!) that inspires them:
You're smart and thoughtful. But sometimes it works against you. I can say that from the personal experience of having an engineer-parent help me on my math homework -- he was talking advanced math and I just needed to know about sets.
It was always a point of perverse pride for me to say "My father can't help me on my math homework because he's so smart." (My father was a scientist at a national rad lab during the early days of computing.) Instead, what it really meant was either he was not a good communicator or there's no help for me. But his enthusiasm and excitement for the subject still came through: That is what your kids take away, even if you can't always communicate the concepts to them.
Most of the following anecdotes refer to physicists, so you can distance yourselves a bit from these behaviors...