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issue: August 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Teaching Youth About Engineering

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by Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO, Society of Women Engineers

For the first time in years, the engineering profession is “in vogue,” especially in the U.S. Within the last year, we have seen the release of the National Academies’ report, Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, and heard U.S. President Bush’s announcement of the American Competitiveness Initiative in the State of the Union Address. Each of these events publicly highlights the importance of engineers to a country’s competitiveness in a global marketplace and the quality of life for all people.
Within the engineering profession, we must leverage the opportunities presented by this new awareness and the resources supporting the initiatives. I’d like to focus on one common, key component from the reports and discussions—increasing the pipeline of engineers and technologists. Although many factors influence the pipeline, one factor that has significant impact is the set of messages we as engineers provide young people and their adult mentors about careers in engineering.
As part of the Extraordinary Women Engineer Project, WGBH Research surveyed “academically prepared” girls to gauge their levels of interest in and awareness of careers in engineering, assess general career motivators and barriers in the engineering field and evaluate messages from the engineering community. “Academically prepared” girls are defined as high-school students enrolled in advanced placement math and science courses, essentially those with the background to pursue an engineering degree. Although the study focused on girls, I argue that most of the findings apply to a wide range of children, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. The results of the study give us direction on how to increase the appeal of engineering.
The research firm, based in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., found that the professional interests of high-school girls hinge upon relevance—whether a job is rewarding and whether it’s for someone “like me.” Girls want their future jobs to be enjoyable, have a good working environment, make a difference, offer a good salary, and be flexible. Bruce Tulgan and Carolyn A. Martin, the authors of Managing Generation Y, report similar goals for the next generation, independent of gender. “Gen Y” expects to work with diverse, highly motivated teams of people. They have lofty financial goals and seek opportunities to play significant roles in professions that help others.
In surveying engineers about what they enjoy about their careers, WGBH Research found a relationship between the benefits of an engineering career and those career goals of young people. Engineers highlighted the benefits of their jobs: satisfaction from the involvement in a project from start to finish; the opportunity to have an impact; challenging work; creative thinking on diverse problems; and the financial benefits.
With this match, why do so few young people consider a career in engineering? Frequently, the children and their parents and teachers have only a basic understanding of who an engineer is or what an engineer does. The media provides few perspectives into our profession beyond the daily analytical commentaries of Dilbert. WGBH Research found that rather than countering these views, current engineering community messages portray engineering studies as challenging while stressing the importance of superior math and science abilities.
With this information we can be more effective when we interact with students by making simple, but important changes to the messages we deliver and the projects we select. Tell personal and informational stories that highlight the similarities of your job and lifestyle with the students’ career aspirations. Students—and their teachers and parents—frequently fail to realize how crucial teamwork is in every engineering project. Few fields offer comparable salaries to new graduates with Bachelor’s degrees. With an engineering background, career paths are without limits and can take direction in technical, business, academic, law, or medical careers. Most importantly, we make a difference to society through our professions.
Help students understand the impact that a single engineer can make. If an appliance is more energy efficient, safer to use, less costly to produce, or even just more fun to use, how much impact have I made when thousands of them are in homes? If my distribution system is more efficient or my production process generates less waste, how does this add up during years of use? When you select a project to complete with the students, pick one that will reinforce one of the many ways that engineering positively impacts society as well as emphasizing that teamwork is essential for successful projects.
As engineers we know what a valuable contribution we make to society, and we also know the numerous benefits of our profession. Young people need to hear our stories and the significant impact we have made in the world in which they live.

About the Author

Betty Shanahan is the executive director and CEO for the Society of Women Engineers (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.). Prior to joining SWE, Shanahan spent 24 years in development, engineering management and marketing for the electronics and software industries. She has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Master of Software Engineering and an MBA. If you would like to contact Shanahan, please e-mail editor@appliance.com


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