I still remember the first time I ever met an Engineer.
It was the fall of 1989, and I was sitting down for my first class in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering at RIT which happened to be Intro to Mechanical Drafting. The instructor opened the class by talking about his background and experiences before starting the first lecture.
So to be clear:
- I was a freshmen in college pursuing an engineering degree.
- I received letters of recommendation from my high school teachers.
- I took all the required tests.
- I selected and applied to several schools.
- I was accepted and chose to attend RIT.
- My parents drove me 9 hours, with a car full of stuff, and helped me move into the dorms.
- They dropped off their son, along with a large sum of money, and left me to study and become an engineer.
The odd thing is that until I took that first engineering class, I had never actually met an engineer.
Now before I get too far, I figure an explanation is warranted here. My previous, and many of my future posts, will be about being an engineer and the work PPC Engineering does. But this one will be different. This is not about what I do as an engineer, but about what I, or we, can do for the future of engineering.
The idea for this post was planted the previous week when I participated in Career Day at a local middle school.
This was the fifth year I had participated in this event, and while I have enjoyed doing it every year, I was struck by the response to something that I had never done before. Over the course of my day I spoke to over 140, 7th and 8th graders across 6 different periods. Several of them were combined classes as the person who was scheduled to speak didn’t show up so they brought them over to me. Despite the crowd, less than a handful of them had ever met an engineer before. And for most of that small group, their engineer encounter was limited to a family member or more distant relative.
But here I was, talking with a room full of kids who have never met an engineer. Now, I get if they had said they never met the President, or a professional athlete, or a celebrity. Those folks are truly hard to meet for the average person, but we are talking about engineers here.
At PPC, the owner, General Manager, Business Development Manager, Supply Chain Manager and one of the sales people all have engineering degrees. If you throw in the people in the actual engineering department, you can’t swing a slide rule without hitting one.
What I found to be shocking that day was that my own experience from when I was their age, over three decades ago, was the same until I showed up at that first engineering class one fateful fall morning. I had never met an engineer either.
As I had done during previous Career Days, I gave my presentation, but this year I wanted to try something different. Instead of just talking for 50 minutes, while desperately trying to keep them from falling asleep, I gave them a task. The task required them to work in small teams and achieve a difficult objective in an unrealistic time frame with substandard materials. You know, the kind of thing engineers do every day. I think they really enjoyed it. The big objective was performing the Spaghetti Marshmallow Challenge.
If you are not familiar with it you should check it out. It’s a great challenge for any age group and can be tailored for just about any event. For my case, it was to illustrate the importance of teamwork, creating a plan, and executing that plan effectively. The greatest concept in the world is useless if it can’t be done on time and under budget, but these kids have plenty of time to experience that.
Now, it’s easy for me to talk about this today, but to be honest, I was scared to death when I walked into the class. Standing in front of a group with my powerpoint running in the background is typically easy for me. In this case, working with a group of kids, guiding them thru the task, and helping with all the steps was a challenge for me. Other than my two kids at home, I only interact with working professionals.
A lot of questions were running through my head, but this was something I really wanted to do. Would this group of kids chew me up and run all over me? Would I just lose control and be forced to ask the teachers to clean up my mess? I wanted to show them more, so I challenged myself to let them experience what it MEANS to be an engineer and not just listen to me talk.
So what happened?
The students loved it, or at least I think they did. The fact that I gave hats and pens to the winning team may have helped, but for now I will credit it to my great speaking performance and an engaging assignment. They worked together, talked, and everyone had a great time.
Would it be great and amazing if all these kids went on to be engineers? It sure would, but that is unfortunately not realistic. I know not everyone is cut-out for a career in engineering, but I did spend a good portion of my talk covering STEM careers in general, not just engineering. Demand for STEM professionals grows every year and the current supply is simply not keeping up.
Texas is doing a great job in promoting STEM careers to young people with the Texas STEM Coalition.
NPSE supports Math Counts to get students of all ages interested and excited about math.
ASME supports FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – by working to find mentors, judges, and other volunteers for the different competitions they hold.
Just like I challenged the students during my Career Day presentation, and I challenged myself by doing this, I want to challenge the readers of this blog.
The challenge for you is to find a way to give back in your career. Being an engineer has opened doors for me and my family that would have never been opened had I gone in a different direction. I will forever be grateful for the people in my life who encouraged and supported me in this journey. Giving back is the least that any of us can do.
I understand not everyone will be able to spend a whole day speaking with young students. However, any time you can share might be the spark that opens their eyes to the possibilities a rewarding STEM career can bring.
If you are passionate and truly enjoy what you do then Give Back. Take a chance, and put yourself out there.
This is my challenge to you, and the challenge I will continue to pursue.