By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Where do engineers come from? This is an increasingly crucial question because we're apparently running out. All indications are that the bulk of process control engineers and those in other disciplines are growing older on average, and rapidly approaching retirement, while most of the youngsters that might be expected to replace them seem to have little or no interest in engineering.
So, where can we get more engineers? Some university, college, community college and high school programs are partnering with businesses and trade organizations to encourage students to participate in engineering-related activities and contests, hopefully to inspire them to take engineering courses, earn engineering degrees and seek engineering jobs. However, while these programs are vital, they mainly attract the relatively few students who are already interested in engineering and fail to draw in the much larger group of students who may not think they can succeed in engineering or other technical fields.
In fact, some research shows that sparking a true interest in engineering may need to occur much earlier—in middle and elementary school.
To check on this idea, I jumped at the chance to tag along with my 10-year-old daughter's Junior Girl Scout Troop 938 when they journeyed Feb. 13 to a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) session, "Engineering Your World," put on by the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana (www.girlscoutsgcnwi.org) at their Regional Service Center in Vernon Hills, Ill. The organization is hosting nine different STEM Saturdays throughout the 2009-2010 school year.
After laying down some ground rules for the five-hour program, the five high-school Senior Girl Scouts running the show asked the two dozen Junior Girls Scouts at the event to first draw what an engineer looks like based on the definition: "An engineer is a person who uses scientific knowledge to solve problems."
Pretty succinct, I thought.
The leaders added that the 10 main engineering careers are aerospace, bioengineering/biomedical, chemical, civil, computer science, electrical and electronic, environmental, industrial and manufacturing, materials and mechanical, and added some aspects of each field. I know, I know, process control always seems to occupy a LaGrange Point between four or five of the other disciplines.
Besides the pads of paper and crayons they were already using, the girls were also given another essential engineering tool—a large roll of duct tape. Very realistic.
Now suitably equipped, the girls were divided into small teams, and were asked to take on several hands-on, engineering-style exercises and challenges using a basic brainstorming, design and development process. Troop 938's "Thin Mints" team included Natalie Ehrler, Stacey Herman, Gracie Montague and Lizzy Soglin.
The team members first took short lengths of wire and tried to design and build a better paper clip. They tried out various configurations, and I think a sort of oval-shaped spiral worked best in limited testing.
Next, they were asked to build a table capable of supporting several books. However, the only materials they could use were a piece of cardboard, newspaper and tape. They quickly set to work, rolled and taped newspaper for legs, attached the cardboard for a top, and then watched it collapse under minimal weight.
"Well, it fell in the middle, so we decided to add another leg right in the middle, and it worked!" explained the team members, pretty much in unison. Talk about speaking as one.
Anyway, the newly modified five-legged table was a sturdy success. In fact, in later competition among the teams, it turned out that it was capable of supporting six of the heavy textbooks.
The third exercise involved using a small wooden spool, a paper cup, a flat stick, tape and foot power to launch a ping pong ball, and then see which team could propel it highest. Once more, the team collaborated—drew a few concepts this time—and came up with a serviceable seesaw design with the cup on one end. However, this design was similar to others, and it quickly became apparent that smaller adjustments were going to give one team's launcher more height than the others. As a result, several teams moved their spool/fulcrum back and forth under the stick/lever, which generated varying levels of power and height. One team even put their spool on end, which gave their lever added room to move before it reached the floor, and this gave it even more oomph. Many ping pong balls bounced off the at-least 25-ft ceiling of the Girl Scouts' conference center.
The final two-part challenge consisted of each team member thinking about technical difficulties in their lives and routines, coming up with an idea for a solution, sketching it out, deciding on a name and even drafting a marketing plan and jingle. They were also asked to vote on the resulting ideas, pick one to represent their team, and then pitch it to the whole group. Team Thin Mints' concepts included: Automatic Pillowcase, which would make it easier to put on and remove pillowcases; Shoe Tier, which would automatically tie shoelaces; Magical Rabbit Cage, a self-cleaning pet enclosure; Non-Squealing Hamster Cage Wheels; and Automatic Color-Changing Shoe Laces. Perhaps feeling a little strain at this point, several team members also seemed a little grouchy when I asked too many questions. Again, just like real engineers and other technical professionals.
Next, the girls pitched their ideas to each other and then agreed to reject most because they couldn't think of a plausible way to describe how the idea could be accomplished. The Shoe Tier won at the team level because its concept involved putting a shoe-clad foot in a plastic and metal enclosure where small robot arms with pincers would grab the shoelace ends and tie them. The team priced its planned invention at $25, reported it would be available in designer colors and topped it off with a slightly desperate/threatening tagline of "Buy one or else!"
In the large-group competition, The Shoe Tier went up against automatic bowl-filling Dogfoodinator, The Fishy Feeder and Toothbrushing Ice Cream—"Just keep eating! Safe to swallow!"
Truthfully, I'm not sure who won. These days, usually everyone is declared to be a winner. I believe it was truer in this case than at other events. All in all, STEM Saturday seemed to be a highly energizing event for the participants and witnesses alike. Of course being around kids is fairly exhausting, but I'm sure it's equally true that it keeps you young.
I guess what I really learned was that all the future engineers are already out there. And, believe me, they are bubbling and exploding with enough ideas and enthusiasm for solving every problem they could possibly face now, in the future, anywhere in this world, and probably in most local universes and parallel dimensions as well.
As far as I've been able to learn, pretty much every school district, park district, kids' organization or community has at least some level of access to STEM, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), FIRST Robotics, Science Olympiad, or any one of dozens of similar programs and resources. All of them could use a few real engineers to show up, hang out with the kids for awhile, show them what they know that's suitable for kids to understand and digest, and maybe build a few projects together. Assuming you guys aren't too old already?