C3PO and Engineering Education

While Walt's recovering from the ISA Expo Blogathon and the Standards Wars Treaty Negotiations, some of we munchkins back home have been talking and thinking about this "How we gonna get the kids to study engineering now that they've seen video game design and 'Dancing with the Stars'? "question. My colleague, Jim Montague, has taken on the challenge of trying to get the attention of the middle-schoolers in his neighborhood over the next few months. I also commend to you the kind of efforts being made by FIRST (the folks working with Lego and others to get the attention of kids through play) and all the industry-school consortiums out there working to make sure there is another generation of engineers. But I gotta tell you--it seems like trying to empty the ocean with a tea cup. There are just so many bright and shiny things out there catching the young'uns attention, and engineering seems a little prosaic by comparison.  While brooding about this over my Cheerios this morning, I came across this story in the local papers. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry is running an exhibit on the science of Star Wars. C3P0, the Jawas' Sandcrawler and the Millennium Falcon cockpit will all be there--along with the science behind them. While reading it, (maybe it was the Cheerios or the smell of fall in the air) I was shunted back decades to the trips I made either with my parents or the rest of the fourth grade to that very museum. I remember the glamor and excitement of the trip to the big city, and the scary ride into the coal mine and what seemed to me to be the world's largest electric train set, but this was also the place where I first really grasped the idea that there was indeed a man behind the curtain. Cool things didn't happen just by magic. People figured out how to build things or move them or dig into the earth to get them, and then, by golly, they went and did just that.  It may be that it is during such field trips that the next generation of engineers will be born. The big programs are fine and important. They need all the support they can get. But in the end, building the next generation of engineers may indeed come down to emptying the ocean with a teacup--recruiting one young engineer at a time. You get your kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews or neighbor kids and some of their friends and take them to see the Star Wars show at the museum (or you find the local equivalent). You show 'em a good time. Let 'em play with the toys if possible. Show them what goes on under the machine covers. Don't poo-poo the fact that it's a glitzy show like Star Wars. Hey, if a long-time fascination with R2D2 or C3P0 is what it takes to get the kid thinking about robotics as a career, then good for George Lucas!    Not every kid will take to it. (In spite of the best efforts of parents and teachers, I still ended up an English major.) But some will. It's like that old Bible story about the farmer who throws his seed out into the field. Some lands on hard soil and doesn't grow. Some ends up in the weed patch. But some lands on good soil, and the farmer ends up with a fine harvest. Ultimately, I think, we all owe our career choices to the influence of a few important people in our lives, and the influence may seem small at the moment or even go unnoticed. The man who drove the bookmobile to our school and introduced me to my first "grown-up" book (one with no pictures) is in his own way responsible for my lifetime love affair with the printed word.   Take a chance. Spend some time with the kids--yours or somebody else's. Show them  why you love engineering. If you need a hand from George Lucas, take it. But one-on-one, not as part of a Serious Lecture, but almost in disguise--as fun, as a family outing, as chatting over the disassembled lawnmower in the driveway--that still may be the best way to spark the initial interest that will lead in a few years to another engineer.

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  • It doesn't even have to be a flashy robot. I have shown them a sewer treatment plant. Yes, it elicited giggles and bad poop jokes. But they remembered it. And they'll think about it.

    Bring samples if you can (but keep them closed).

    And while you're at it, sneak a pump curve in there. Show them efficiency, TDH, flow, and so forth. Show how you can be a serious environmentalist by making this stuff more efficient and effective. Show them a video of a belt filter press dewatering sludge. Show them a filter undergoing a backwash. Show them the motor controls.

    Sadly, most of industrial sites are off limits to actual visits these days. Even if security weren't a factor, OSHA safety is.

    But video and animation are easier than ever. So take lots of video and put it in a fancy powerpoint presentation. Limit the bullets but put lots of geeky looking graphs and interesting pictures in there.

    They majority may not understand much of what we say, but the nerdly types will latch on to it with a ferocity. They're the ones we want.

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