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October 10, 2005

Why study engineering?

I found the article below to be very insightful. Before I begin to dissect the article and apply my uniquely qualified opinion, allow me to digress for a moment.

It occured to me that there are not enough commercial entities which offer encouragement, much less romanticize the field of engineering. Instead, you're more likely to find shows which emphasize the high drama of the doctors or lawyers. Why is that?

Actually, some of you may recall the show called MacGyver, it depicted a guy who was a great problem solver. I have no idea if he was an engineer but he clearly was resourceful and inquisitive, both of which are attributes of many engineers. The show aired for about seven years and was pulled off the air. I don't believe it has received much syndication. In fact, it was the only show of its type. In contrast, there have been a never ending deluge of court, hospital and lately business shows. To reiterate my point, it was the only show which glamourized what I consider 'engineer-like' traits. Don't misunderstand, I do believe that law and medicine are admirable professions, and both require a certain amount of discipline, but it is clearly not engineering.

I suppose the stereotypical stigmas associated with engineering (ie. taped glasses, exaggerated overbite, etc) are partly responsible. Yeah, just like the popular sitcom Family MattersUrkel. I'm sure everyone remembers Animal House too. It has been said that most engineers are anti-social and lack essential communication skills. While I do know some that fit that description, I would argue that these are largely myths. The problem I have with all of these misguided perceptions, is that it has become a deterent to aspiring scientists and engineers. These days the term nerd or geek isn't nearly as offensive to some. However, a youngster may not understand and begin to develop self hatred and a disdain for fascinations that really describe their interests and ultimately define their personality. The sad truth is there aren't enough high schools that foster excellence. Fortunately, I attend BTHS, and it did have its share of very talented, err shall I say nerdy teenagers.

Speaking from experience, I was one of those children. I was the guy who used to catch insects (praying mantis were my favorite), take apart any appliance in the home. Yeah, I even bread a few cockroaches in my day too.
Anyway, now that I've gone off on my tangent, let's get back to the point of this essay. Why aren't more people choosing engineering as a field of study?

Where are all of the role models? How many people have parents who were involved in technical areas interest? Not very many. I assert that this contributes to the mystique of engineering as a field of study. In fact, studies show that we have more foreign nationals attaining engineering doctorates than Americans. Many of these foreign speaking people find their way into teaching positions in our universities. To the dismay of many (much like the author) the language barriers can be problematic. From personal experience, there are indeed many professors from India and elsewhere where English is a second language. So it isn't bad enough that the subject matter is challenging, but couple that with an inability to articulate the subject matter... You have a very volatile situation. I clearly recall a adjunct professor who taught Heat Transfer. He was from Bopal, India. The man had an accent that was so profound, I had to insist that he annunciate each syllable. As the semester progressed, I made trips to speak with him during office hours, so that I could ask questions and get comfortable with the accent.

Luckily, I attended a FAMU which shares an engineering school, recently received an influx of American profs, so this particular experience was not the norm (circa 1997). In fact, the formative courses Calculus, Physics, and Chemistry were all taught by English speaking instructors(Aside: I took eleven math courses before I began any engineering coursework). So, my experience was a healthy one. I'm not sure if the author of the article below had the same experiences in his formative courses.

Well, I've discussed how children could be wrongly discouraged from studying engineering by some stereotypical folklore. So, I suppose one might ask, "What happens to people that actually earn engineering degrees?"

I surmise that many of those people become disenchanted with the field because most are not doing technical work.
Gary Cornell, editor in chief at Apress Publishing and doctorate in Mathematics, indicates that too many engineers are pushing paper around. Not enough engineers doing crtical analysis or highly innovative tasks. I'd tend to agree. In most engineering companies(Automotive companies included), we're told that in order to climb the proverbial ladder, you must have several people under your supervision. You must manage multi-billion dollar accounts, etc. However, once engineers start running after the MBA, the landscape changes, we are then told, "Where is your technical depth?" The model suddenly changes, and the rug is pulled out from under you. Management doesn't seem to understand that you can't have both. Either foster a true environment of technical excellence, by empowering engineers at all levels to study technical issues or run the risk of falling further behind our foreign neighbors.

So, if our American companies are looking for the best and brightest engineers, where are they going to find them? It certainly appears as though they may have to setup foreign incubators in countries like China and India. This would be a calamity of epic proportions.

Clearly, I don't have all of the answers, but I will continue to be that geek or nerd. Although, I have become disenchanted with business aspect of engineering. I still have a great desire to do technical work. Perhaps one day I will have an opportunity to develop a patent or deliver a beneficial artifact to society. According to the late Napoleon Hill, author of critically acclaimed and best seller "Think and Grow Rich." Men typically are most productive at age 50. So, I suppose that I still have time.

TCS: Tech Central Station - Confessions of an Engineering Washout

Posted by AG at October 10, 2005 1:02 AM