I was a child of an Electrical Engineer. My dad spent his career in the broadcast industry (TV to you and me). As a child I remember him taking me into the control room (this was in the 1960's) at the TV studio with all the blinking lights, monitors, etc. How could I not grow up to be an engineer after those experiences :-).
Well into my career I was blessed with three healthy children, first a son, then a few years later another son, and a few years later after that, my little princess (a daughter).
I don't think I consciously tried to steer them into STEM related jobs, but my enthusiasm for my career, my constant enjoyment over all things nerdy, science, and technology - yes, it rubbed off on all of them.
While my oldest just graduated with a Bachelors in Biology and wants to continue to med school. And, my youngest is pre-med and in college on a fully paid tuition. It was my middle son who I knew would be an engineer or scientist.
When he just started to walk, I noticed my prized stereo (that I've had since college days) started to sound a little off. Upon investigation, I took the cloth speaker covers off and noticed dozens of tiny little finger sized holes in the speaker cones. All at the exact height of my newly walking son. Yes, I knew his inquisitiveness was going to get him into trouble, and here was a prime example. When he was starting to talk (a year or so later), he was sitting in the family room resting in a pose that looked like the "Thinker" statue from Rodin. I asked him what he was thinking, he said "I'm thinking daddy". And I said, I can see that son, what are you thinking about? He said, "I'm thinking about thinking!". At which point I went, oh boy, that's too deep for me. And also realized he would definitely be an engineer :-)
Yes, a few years onward and he was the one that would burn his name into the side of the house with the magnifying glass, and carve his initials in his sister's nice bedroom furniture, and build models, and spend countless hours with Legos, conext, etc.
He excelled in school, straight A's mostly; it came naturally to him, without studying. Unlike his poor sister and brother who really had to work at it (like me).
In high school he found his calling, Chemistry, he volunteered in the lab, tutored other kids, and consumed everything he could read about the subject.
Sometime around then, my kids lost their mom, I lost my dear wife of 22 years to what's called "late onset schizophrenia". It was a tough road for my kids dealing with a mentally ill and absent mother. They each handled the pain in their own way. I think it has steered my youngest and oldest towards medical careers so they can help others, and possibly better understand what happened to their cherished mom.
This past spring semester, my middle son, the hopefully soon to be chemical engineer seemed more stressed them normal, I could not seem to help him in any way, my suggestions went unheeded.
At the end of the semester we were looking forward to his A's and B's that he had been making at community college and hopefully his acceptance into the very good state college. To our shock, and his honest dismay - he had straight F's.
We were devastated, he was honestly confused over how this could occur, I thought it was a clerical error, a computer glitch. No, he had not been turning in any work; he had failed almost all the tests. He didn't even realize this. My darkest fears that genetics had cursed him with what his mom has come to pass. Well, almost. My dear son has been diagnosed with Severe Anxiety disorder. I can't understand it, I can't explain it. It's like trying to explain the grandeur of the Grand Canyon to someone who has never been there. I only know he seems better these past few months with medication. I can only hope that as he starts back to college in a few weeks we will see that are new normal is OK.
Hug your kids - engineering bound or not, they are so very special.
What a story. I found myself captivated to your narrative and cruel outcomes life sometimes unfolds to all of us.
But I am really glad to hear your middle son seems to be better lately with the help of meds.
Medical science advances leaps and bounds every year. Let's keep faith in the development of science. More importantly, though, reading between the lines -- the way you told your story, I can tell what a great, caring Dad you are to your kids.
@visi_guy: Thanks for your post. I hope your son can find some relief. He has an extra burden to carry when he goes off to school but it's good he knows about it now and is getting treatment. It understand how incomprensible it is. It's amazing how little we know about how the brain works, but as time (and research) goes on, I'm sure we'll know more about these disorders and have better treatments.
I just finished reading the book Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith, about the author coming to terms with his anxiety disorder and how he gradually learns to cope with it. I recommend it. His website is here.
On a hopeful note, Hugh Herr, the MIT Media Lab professor, gave a keynote at EE Times's DESIGN West in which he postulated that one day electronic devices will provide "cleaner" treatment for these conditions your son, and millions of others, have. By "cleaner" he meant fewer, or no, side effects compared with pharmaceutical treatments. It was a hopeful speech. Maybe your children will be part of that solution.
My parents are both humanities types: Art History and English Lit. They discovered that I would be an engineer when I was about 3 years old and took me to the Botanical Gardens. They hoped I would love all the pretty flowers and plants, but I was only interested in tracing the paths of the pipes in the sprinkler system. (This is good practice for working with multi-layer PC boards.)
My grandfather was an engineer, so it skipped a generation. My two daughters are both technically adept and highly skilled in using computers, but neither showed any interest in becoming an engineer. They went into Art and Art History, like my dad -- even though their other grandpa was an engineer.
They hoped I would love all the pretty flowers and plants, but I was only interested in tracing the paths of the pipes in the sprinkler system. (This is good practice for working with multi-layer PC boards.)
wow, this is a great story... that's definitely a clue!
Yes, it too was interested in sprinkler systems. When I was four, my father installed a sprinkler system in our new house. (New house, bare yard). When we went to nearby Sears store, I would go to the plumbing department to look at sprinkler parts, and even explain to other customers what to do with them.
In Kindergarten, I would design sprinkler systems with Tinker-toys (everyone here remembers them, right?). My teacher didn't like that, though, and I was told not to do it.
Some time later when I had another one designed, she commented on how nice it was, and asked about it. When told it was a sprinkler system design, she then didn't like it anymore. And I still remember that 50 years later!
Even before that, I was interested in electrical things, since I was about two.
My father is a physicist, so he understood my pretty early, but not everyone did.
Great story, Glenn, and it rings so familiar. The part about the teacher, especially. I too remember countless times, at school and even at home sometimes, when what I might have been obsessing over was deemed trivial. This is more common in grade school, I think, before you get to the more nerdy/techie teachers who might occasionally actually share your interests.
Which is what I find so refreshing about Caleb's attitude. Impressive. I too strived to show interest in and encourage my daughter, from the time she first demonstrated where her interests were. Which happens at an incredibly young age. Easily by the time they're 1 year old.
Thanks for you post. Interesting your youthful fascination with sprinkler systems and how it indicates that the engineering gene (not the farming gene) was part of your neurbiological inheritance. Makes a lot of sense.
My father was always tinkering with the sprinklers but it never occurred to me it was because he was fascinated by them. It seemed more like he was doing battle with them. (Perhaps it was just the clay soil he was doing battle with.)
This article is cracking me up. I don't think any of my toys escaped my screwdriver.
"but I was only interested in tracing the paths of the pipes in the sprinkler system."
Hah! I did the same thing to my parents when I was about 5. They took me to a museum and the only thing I was interested in was all the pipes and conduit hung from the ceiling. I'm 33 now and my mother still tells that story to people!
It is very interesting to watch our children growing with different abilities and different interests. To parents all kids are briliant and that may be true.
However, to brand one's kid at so early age is not good premonition. At this tender age they should be given more wider exposure to different possiblities. Also in place of branding and binding them with (sometime) your own inner desire is not desirable practice.
All kids should be given carte blanche to pursue what they dream to be correct and support them in fulfulling their dreams.
This article is merely observations of his behavior. Every parent watches their children and gets to know and predict their behavior. Also, every parent pushes their inner desires on their children, because our desires are for them to thrive and succeed in life. I don't care if he gets an engineering degree, I'm just noting that he has these tendencies.
About surgeons and engineers: legend has it that many years ago Dr. William Freye, who was the dean of the LSU medical school, had dropped out of electrical engineering and gone into medicine instead, because "engineering was too hard." Unfortunately I never did find out what engineering school he had been attending. But as a lifelong engineer I loved the story.
It was fairly obvious that I was going to be an engineer when I was taking my toys aprt to see how they worked, and then putting them back together and they worked. And having a strong interest in how things went together and how they worked, not just in what they did. Then inventing all kinds of things that did work, but I was not that skilled as an 9 year old. But I could build all kinds of circuits with relays and not pop fuses, which was quite a skill. All of that with a good reading ability and I was into all of the adult technical stuff at the library, and having to argue with the librarians because of trying to check out technical books when I "should have stayed in the childrens section". But I was always able to read about things that I could not afford to buy, and may not have been able to work with, at ages 10 and 11. But reading is a much safer way to explore a lot of technology than putting hands on it. Books seldom give shocks, start fires, or explode. But A kid who reads can learn a whole lot.
Besides taking toys apart, I remember at a young age taking apart one of our first touch tone telephones -- back in the days when they had an actual bell inside for the ringer, and when the telephone was the property of the phone company, not the consumer. My dad was, needless to say, not too happy to see all those parts laid out on the basement floor, but he calmed down after I put it back together and it worked :)
My oldest son was always a builder, even as a toddler. I remember watching his frustration when he learned first hand about the effect of gravity on tall Lego structures that lack stability. But even though he was the child I would say was the most "natural engineer" of my three, he did not pursue engineering, but my daughter did. She wasn't a builder like her brother, but she turned out to be a natural mathematician -- which is just as likely a path to engineering as a natural desire to take things apart and see how they work.
I am still impressed, Frank. My father was an engineer; he was a builder, but he also loved tearing things apart. All of us in the family -- my mother, my sister and I -- all knew full well that once he tore things apart, he didn't quite put things together back.
I taught my son HTML programming when he was 11 (back in 1995 when it wasn't so common). Soon he was running circles around me and critiquing my coding practices. However, it was when he was 15 and watched me prototyping an invention that a brief time away from my desk resulted in Alex creating an animated demonstration far superior to my static one. Furthermore, he identified a gap in the concept and invented the solution. In due course, a joint patent application was filed and the patent issued just after his 21st birthday. As a result, there have been 4 generations of patent holding inventors in my family: great-grandfather, grandfather, myself (with 49), and my son. Only my father (Prof. Willard Van Orman Quine) is missing - and he was a renowned philosopher and mathematician at Harvard University for 65 years. I guess each generation just inspires another.
@alzie For me, it was the tiny, working model of a steam engine that powered a play sausage making machine--no kidding! I didn't take it apart, but it had a heavy influence on me becoming a mechanical engineer.
I had just received a self-winding watch for my 13th birthday. Within the first 12 hours, the watch was totally disassembled. To "teach" me a lesson, my father took all my savings (earned by shoveling snow and mowing lawns) to get the watch repaired. Later on in life, I realized that I have a very expensive watch habit and very poor respect for money/savings.
Q1) Are engineers mostly stubborn?
Q2) Are there any lessons for parents (of engineers) in the above story?
Good engineers are not stubborn, instead, we are persistant, not giving up, but solving the problem. There are others, though, who ommediately give up and go in a different direction. Those folks should have selected a different profession.
I think that sometimes my mother was concerned ... I self-started in electronics at around age 7 or 8. Soon afterward, I remember having to stand on a crate to use the tube tester in Renton so that I could fix the family TV. However, unlike my namesake, I continued on to get my PhD. After nearly 50 years, I still love electronics and technology (among other things).
My father was an anti-engineer - he could take photographs, develop them, print them and publish them in the newspapers he worked for. But when it came to the things around the house nothing worked - the toaster, the electric mixer, etc. I recall at age 4 realizing the toaster was able to toast only one side of the bread due to the fact that the heating elements were only getting hot on one side. This was due to an open circuit in the non-toast side. My mother had explained about conductors and insulators, so I took a bone-handeled knife, stuck it in the non-toast side of the toaster, pushed the open wires together and - they glowed!
We had two-sided toasd ever after.
There are two things to this - my father was happy to leave things as they were and to do what he knew - take pictures, develop them in a sequence of chemicals and send the product (4 x 5 Speed Graphic negatives) to his employer. My mother, on the other hand, knew what was behind things and could tell me how a thermostat worked or how glass was made - and could warn me that some things conducted electricty and some didn't and it was best to hold the things that didn't when you were working with the things that did.
I think that behind every good engineer is a mother (or parent) who was willing to answer those questoins - and who undertstood the difference between conductors and insulators.
On the other hand, behind many engineers is a father who doesn't know which end of a screwdriver to stick in a screw, resulting in a child who has to make things work, no matter what.
@sixscrews, quite agree if one of the parents takes out time to answer the questions of little explorers and motivates them, they turn out to be good engineers. And of course if something needs to be fixed and there is a oppotunity the kids get up and try to fix that. Engineering is just not about passing a degree but its more of a passion. The more practical hands on experience you do the better engineer you trun out to be.
My father is a mechanical engineer. I remember as a kid going with him for a walk to see trains every Sunday. On our way there was this railway substation providing power to the rail grid. My dad knew and explained to me the concepts behind power transforming. The only think he did know were the voltages used - he knew thousands of volts were involved. It took me some time to figure out that the incoming line was 110kV. After that I started dreaming about having one of those transformers in the garden... I remember being asked by some adult (auntie maybe) about what would I really like to get for my birthday - now try to imagine the face of a normal person when a 6 or 7-year-old answers "110 to 15kV oil-cooled 3 phase transformer" :)
I did not go into high power in the end, I do electronics design.
My Father started me reading at age three, he then brought me three sets of books in 1955 my fifth year of age. The books of Knowledge, The books of places and peoples, The books of Things and Procedures. After reading these books by age nine all the incessant questions were avoided. In fact my contribution to the family began at age 4 when I used to read the user manuals of the new cars, then tell my family how to operate the car's features. Once I noticed a tire making a strange noise while the car was moving. Upon close inspection a large bubble was found on the rigth rear tire. A stop at a nearby Firestone dealer got our car an entire new set of tires.
Four years after receiving the books, creativity began to show its face at age six.
The micro-computer was not a flash in the dark mind of a 17 year old but a flame slowly coaxed to hugh fire. The flames continue.
All three of my kids are showing dendencies toward engieering, but my oldest has the clearest direction as to which dicipline.
When he was in sixth grade as a fund raising reward classes got a mechanical pig that walked, stopped, oinked, then walked again. The pigs were going to race with the winning class getting a party. Classes were allowe to modify the pigs, with most adding batteries, or making the feet slide better. My son disassembled the pig figured out what made it stop and oink. He cut the tab off the gear that made it do that, and re assembled the pig. It won before most of the other pigs were more than a third the way to the finish. (There were complaints that this wasn't fair. Unfortunately the school's response was to change the rules the following years to ban modification.)
Is on a middle school robotics team (FLL) and his mechanical knack helped them get to a world championship and take second in mechanical design. Some of the team members who moved to the high school team ahead of him told him that they wished he could have joined that team early.
I've always thought that my youngest son is a born engineer. He is fascinated by the way things work and I often find him taking things apart to see what's inside. Unfortunately, at age five he hasn't mastered the art of putting them back together. But I'm confident that he will in time.
When one of my designs works well, I consider it a work of art. I am driven by the same creative urges that drives a composer, painter, or author. In fact, in addition to doing design work, I am also writing and photographing. It is all the same, creating something out of raw building blocks.
I was definitely a born engineer. When I was very little, my father built an addition on to the master bedroom, and I got to play with leftover electrical plugs and sockets. Wirelessly-powered wireless music streaming devices had been around for a few decades. I built one, and that project really got me started.