I occasionally have the opportunity to visit local high schools to talk to the students about engineering and related careers. I am not a particularly polished speaker, and I suppose I am asked to return because I’m a bit of an anomaly – a female in a largely male-dominated technical career. It’s a great frustration of mine to be described in this way, in part because it’s such a small part of who I am, but also because I wonder if it reinforces the example, as a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Engineering is a tough field, certainly. But I would argue that perhaps we do a disservice to our students by not encouraging more of them to enter it. For years, it has been reported that the US produces fewer and fewer engineers than competing countries. So, how do we get today’s student excited about engineering?
When I think about how I started in engineering, it was so much the result of a casual suggestion by an advisor for TSA (Technology Student Association), which I was involved with through my middle and high school years. I’d been through career counseling testing typically offered in high school and found that I had high aptitude scores in many different areas, so that didn’t help me narrow down my interests. I had not, however, actually considered engineering until that teacher asked me about it, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure then that it was something I would find interesting as a career choice. I did like building and figuring out how things worked, but it was more of an entertaining hobby than anything I took very seriously. Who wants to be stuck in an office hunched over a calculator or staring at a computer for hours on end, every day? (Ok, so some people might find that exciting, but it didn’t appeal to me, and still doesn’t.)
Fortunately, engineering doesn’t just have to be about number crunching. Engineering is so much more about applying theory in a real-world setting, solving problems, designing better solutions, and making all the moving parts to a project work together. In fact, in my current position I spend a lot of time talking with clients and design team members, coordinating workload, writing reports and monitoring project budgets. I’m sure those functions were never part of my teenage view of Engineering. Of course, there is the “glamorous” side of Engineering. Who doesn’t dream of designing the next Burj Khalifa, Mars Rover, or iPad? And for the altruistic – there are programs like Engineers Without Borders which help to bring clean water, power, sanitation, and education to disadvantaged places throughout the world.
I was recently discussing this topic with an industrial and manufacturing engineering instructor and student advisor from Penn State. Whenever he has a student that isn’t quite sure what to study, he recommends the basic courses necessary for entry into any of the engineering programs at Penn State. This isn’t just because he’d like to see more students prepared for engineering, but because the skills necessary to be a successful engineer translate so well into being a success in any other career path. Along with the obvious math and science skills, critical thinking, communication, and team skills are required in any engineering curriculum. They also have obvious applications in business, sales, marketing, teaching, medicine, law…
And, just maybe, some of these students will find that they actually like… engineering.