The future of innovation in America is not necessarily cooing in a maternity hospital in Bangalore or Beijing. She could be 18, smart, witty, all-business and blonde.
Meet Francys Scott, an heir to your engineering legacy. "We need to find a way to show everyone that the engineer is a hero," she said almost matter-of-factly, as she worked her way through a recent lunch at a San Francisco restaurant.
Scott isn't a CEO, a consultant, a politician or even an engineer-yet. She's a first-year engineering student who represents the emerging generation of homegrown technology smarts in North America. While Scott, as a woman, is among a minority of engineering students, she's no stranger to the high-tech world. Her father, Richard, is an engineer, and her mother, Jean, holds an MBA. Her younger sister, who will be a junior in high school this fall, is on the same path as Scott.
We met her after her father queried us about a 2004 EE Times article about Franklin W. Olin College near Boston, a top-rated engineering school few have heard of. Richard and Francys were looking at schools and wanted more information on Olin after reading the piece.
It wasn't a matter of whether to go to engineering school, just where. Scott applied to 12, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Cornell, Duke, Carnegie Mellon and USC. "I didn't apply to Stanford, because it was too close" to home, says the graduate of Woodside Priory, almost a stone's throw from that university.
She picked Olin for many reasons, not the least of which is its low teacher/ student ratio. She said she was impressed by "the people and how they cared about each other."
The second most important factor, Scott said, was that "the education they give me won't necessarily give me [just] technical facts. I want to be able to learn how to learn. If I go to a place and all I learn is how to do C++ and be a programmer, that's all I'll be able to do when I graduate. I want to learn how to be adaptable."
Scott's recognition of the need to be flexible should serve her well once she graduates. It's no secret that, historically, many girls who excel in math and science in the primary grades veer-or are steered-away from the tech track in high school. And while women have reached parity with men in graduation rates in math and biosciences, the percentage of female engineers sporting a mortarboard is stagnant.
Add the perception that American primary education is not adequately serving the needs of the country's technology future, and you've got a problem.
In EE Times' "2005 State of the Engineer Survey," only 1 percent of respondents gave the United States an "A" in preparing students for engineering careers. Eighty percent gave the effort a "C" or worse.
"Teachers didn't start differentiating between girls and boys in math and science until about my seventh-grade year," Scott said of her own experiences. "They started doing things like affirming boys more than girls and undervaluing the girls' performance. By the time they got to high school, a lot of the people I knew who had been at least nominally interested in math and science no longer were, because of that."
While she knew pursuing the higher math and science classes would be a procedural struggle, Scott quickly figured out to whom to hitch her wagon for best results. She made sure she got an advanced-placement chemistry teacher as an adviser one year and an AP physics teacher the next. "If you have a math or science [instructor as your] adviser, it's a lot easier to get into the classes," she said.
By her senior year, among her class of 60, Scott was the only woman taking advanced science and math classes. "A lot of kids would say, 'I can't do math and science,' and I would say, 'Well, why not?' I could never get that," she recalled.
As she prepares for her fall term, Scott is entering an academic world that's viewed in a slightly better light by professional engineers. More than 70 percent of the survey respondents gave an "A" or "B" to U.S. universities for preparing students to work as engineers. The quality of math and science education overall at the university level earned similarly good grades. Still, a majority said they believe "multidisciplinary technology" and science are two areas that need curriculum improvement.
While her father's legacy had a bit to do with her education and career choice, happenstance also played a small part. As a student gymnast, Scott became acquainted with several coaches who were studying engineering at Berkeley. "What they had to say to me was really important," she said.
At our lunch, Scott picked her words carefully. She had brought with her a detailed outline of a series of columns EE Times has asked her to write to chronicle her experiences as a first-year female engineering student. Only once, when asked how she sees her career evolving, did she pause.
"The only way we can bring ourselves out of this-I think it's a real [economic] depression-is if there's a real invention of new things," she said after some reflection. "What I want to do is create something new-and I want to help others realize they can do the same thing."
"The primary education system is basically a mess"
"Higher education is not up to producing qualified professionals"
"I have a really big beef with education"