I started out on a farm and just was born with thirst for knowledge, understanding how things, worked, and how to build things - understanding the building blocks and how they could be put together to make new things. My parents indulged me with an encyclopedia which I used to read like a novel, Tinker Toys, Lego, Erector Set, Lincoln Logs. It was music radio, slot cars and electric guitars that got me into electronics, I wanted to have the fastest slot car at the local track, so I started rewinding the motors, buying stronger magnets, etc.
When I was a senior in high school in 1972, I still was thinking of taking over the family farm, when Nixon embargoed the Soviet Union and the wheat market tanked. I decided I wanted to go into a field where the goverment couldn't break your back overnight - how naive. I still haven't found one.
I came of age watching the space race coverage, from Sputnik, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and those pesky Soviets keeping stride with us. I didn't notice how geeky the guys behind the NASA monitors looked, it looked like cool work to me. Now the kids see instant celebrity from gangsta rappers, Lady Gaga, foul-mouthed bloggers, and, yeah, betajet, Bernie Madoff and the Wall Street financial wunderkind. Knowing how to solve DiffEQs isn't cool, although we occasionally get a hero to cheer in a film like Apollo 13 or TV show like MacGyver.
It starts in the schools. Teachers need to nurture the students with gifts for math, science, music, who have inquisitive natures, and who are persistent. Sound like any kids you know - not many around these days. The education establishment is all about "No Child Left Behind", which shackles the high performers together with the opposite end of the Bell Curve. Too much of the school curriculum is politicized, environmentalist pablum devoid of scientific curiousity, like the "settled science" of global warming. It's "the rain forest in Brazil is being destroyed, how does that make you feel?" instead of "why aren't there any rain forests in Canada?" The education establishment is more interested in telling kids WHAT to think instead of teaching them HOW to think.
Thankfully, there are still a few that survive that environment and move through the social stigma of being a geek and a curve-raiser, and persist. Too bad we don't reward them on the level commensurate with their contributions to society. There are still a few people who want to know how iPhones and HD satellite TV works - wonder if we can make it 3D?
At least there are a few cable channels like Discovery, NatGeo, PBS, and shows like Mythbusters (love those guys) that celebrate inquisitive minds and dismantling dogma and media misinformation. We could use a few more celebrity engineers and scientists to serve as role models - Dean Kamen comes to mind.
As a geeky teenager in the early 1970s I got interested in electronics - which started with making amplifiers and effects for my guitar.
That led me to do a degree in electronics - and I was lucky to graduate in time to design 1st generation products using the early 8 bit microprocessors.
It was easy in those days - because no one knew anything. And if you could remember hex codes that made the assembly language go faster. (Later we bought expensive Intel boxes which cost more than my house - after we sold some of the products.)
I was lucky to start my own VC backed company and have fun in my electronics career.
There are hard parts too - and the unexpected - when physics rudely clashes with your model (physics always wins) - and the customer's clock is ticking and showing 4am.
Although it's nearly 20 years since I managed electronic design projects I couldn't do my job now (as an SSD market analyst and commentator) without that background. And I'm still having to learn more about electronics than I ever thought I'd need to know. (Because many products are flaky and assembled by people who know block diagrams but not electronics.)
Without electronic engineers our society couldn't function.
If you want more pay - team up with a good marketer and start your own company. That's a tradition that's held true since semiconductors replaced the vacuum tube.
Good luck in your careers.
I have to agree many points with betajet.
My initial motivation was that as an engineer I could work any place in the world. As many of you know by now, this idea completely backfired and here in Western Europe we are scrambling for every technical job that's left. When I was a kid magnetic levitated trains were a big thing in electrical engineering, some 35 years later there is only one in Shanghai operating on schedule. Other than that I was left with 60's style Lego and Fischertechnik to invent the things which later I found out existed for ages.
Nowadays I try to forsee the trends and position myself to be useful when new technology becomes exploited more prominently. That's basically the only thrill left, new technology.
It was the interest in mathematics that got me into engineering. Engineering involves understanding the principles of both science and math, and the more you practice working on a diverse set of problems, by the end of the program you will reach a stage where you have pretty much all the tools needed to solve any engineering problem. I experienced myself through my masters where my problem solving was at the peak.
First, let's take care of the bad news. Why would anyone want to encourge a child to go into a field where all the jobs are being outsourced to the cheapest country? If a kid has any brains, he or she will see that engineers are making $20K a year in China and investment bankers are making $20M a year on Wall Street. If you're good in math, do you want to teach math at a community college ($25K a year if you're lucky) or come up with "creative investments" on Wall Street and make $250K a year?
So step one is to stop DIScouraging people from becoming engineers.
Now for the trip down core memory lane... I was a born engineer -- it's a calling, not something that seemed like a good idea at the time. Most powerful influence from childhood was probably living a year in France and taking the Metro (or the London Underground) at every possible opportunity. There's something exhilarating about blasting through those tunnels on high speed trains of various vintages on a well-engineered, well-run system. Ditto for European electric inter-city rail. Ditto for the big old motors and wheels that operate those elevators at the Eiffel Tower, a cathedral of great engineering.
Favorite toys were electric trains (how I designed my first finite state machine), Lego (pre-VLSI design with color rectangles), and Erector set (I'm from the last generation when 99% of engineers had Erector sets when they were kids.) I'm also from the last generation when you could take things apart and see how they worked. Can't do that any more: take it apart and there's a tiny circuit board with surface mount components.
My mother made the mistake of getting me an "educational" game called "WFF 'n' Proof", which is a dice game for doing symbolic logic. Pretty useless as a game, since there was nobody to play it with, but I taught myself symbolic logic and then armed with a copy of the "GE Transisor Handbook" I created logic circuits using resistor-transistor and diode-transistor logic and a voltmeter. Being able to buy TTL logic as ICs years later was decadent in comparison.
They say an expert should understand at least two levels below the level at which he or she works. So many computers and software nowadays are black boxes, so it's impossible to really understand what's going on. Even with open source the underlying software is so complex that the source code might just as well be absent.
So what can be done to motivate the youth of today? Well, the born engineers don't need much motivation. Send them to a few Maker's fairs and give them some cheap microcontroller eval boards and let them play. As for the engineering jobs, history teaches us that whatever country has the best technology has the greatest influence in the world. You can't ship all the tech jobs overseas and expect to defeat history.
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