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Engineering and Technology to Save the World

 

I had the opportunity to hear John Cohn, IBM and IEEE Fellow, at the ITC conference this last week.
He is an enthusiastic evangelist for attracting kids into STEM and particularly engineering fields.  I wish I could share his presentation with you, but either it did not get video taped (what I'm told) or perhaps it was censored by the Folks for Ethical Treatment of Pickles (you had to be there).  In any case, you can see a similar presentation on YouTube in two parts: John Cohn part 1, and part 2. Each part is about ten minutes.
 
Part 1 reveals a number of key, disturbing statistics. The decline in U.S. engineering graduates is one (in his ITC talk he also had numbers for China and India where engineering is a well respected and growing field.)  He also showed results from surveys that provide feedback on what young people think about engineers (and scientists).   These range from 'creates economic growth' (engineers 69%, scientists 25%) to 'saves lives' (engineers 14%, scientists 82%) -- we also lose in: 'cares about the community' (37%), 'sensitive to societal concerns' (28%), 'improves the quality of life' (22%), and 'protects the environment' (17%). These hurt us in two ways: first, they are quite wrong, and second these are top considerations in the minds of the emerging generation of students. And you wonder why we have more college graduates in sports management than engineering.  John also points out that kids think engineering is hard, requires math and science, and it is not for everyone -- all fairly correct perceptions, but also very true of medical doctors, and other fields that have significant impact on the quality of life, society and the environment. While some kids are lazy, many are willing to really work if they can make a difference, and that is where the engineering "Brand" as John calls it, is failing. It is disturbing that our sister society, the IEEE Society on the Social Implications of Technology is at risk of being eliminated when it is in the dead center in the discussion of many of these issues.
 
Engineers are the real "Wizards" (aka Harry Potter), the folks who really can save the world.  And of course some of the threats to the world come from engineers as well - we purify water, deliver the web -- but enable web predators, and build weapon systems as well (not just for the good guys, the bad guys also have engineers doing this -- which ever way you decide to separate good and bad.)  But for those who think Dean Kamen  just does robots and Segways -- realize that his early innovations included the portable dialysis machine that has improved the quality of life for millions and saved many lives and his current work includes a focus on purifying water (a top global challenge) and clean energy.
 
John goes on to point out that the solution is in our face. The major growth in engineering started after Sputnik in 1957 -- landing men on the moon, and funding infusions leading to the Internet, and many other innovations. John points to the current high visibility with pre-college children on the need for environmental protection, new energy sources, and sustainability in all areas. Addressing these problems is primarily an engineering and technology challenge -- so real progress will draw folks into our fields.  Here is where I differ with John a bit ... while I agree that is the sustainability focus that will attract new students, and it is a real challenge we face -- I also see the perception problems that indicate that the public does not see engineering as part of the solution -- this is bad.  Changing public perception is non-trivial, and a necessity if we are going to draw young people into our fields and address these challenges.
 
The IEEE "Public Visibility" effort is one step to address some of these challenges.  No doubt more is needed on a broad basis to build respect for the contributions of engineers and technologists.  Without this, we will not draw the best and brightest into STEM fields.
 
As always, your thoughts are welcome ... paths forward here will benefit us all.
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Jim,
It was good meeting you at ITC. Thanks for the nice write-up. I have to agree with your disagreement with me about the difficulty in changing perceptions. :-) .. I did not mean to imply that such a change would be easy. I should address that better in my talk... My whole purpose of doing 'The Colony' was to participate in that changing of perception. I've been talking the Public Perceptions folks in IEEE central to see what other sorts of things we could be doing as a profession to bring about that change.. Any ideas from you or your readers would be really welcome. Thanks again !
-john c

Posted on 11/13/10 7:59 AM.

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