Inspiring Future Generations of Engineers

McMillan and Weiner talk about Ways Our Young Generations Have Been Inspired to Join the Automation Industry

By Greg McMillan and Stan Weiner

Greg: I have known Hunter Vegas ever since his intelligent questions were submitted to Control Talk near its inception about 10 years ago. Hunter also provided some of the best columns and Top 10 Lists on Automation projects in the 4th quarter of 2010. When I started the ISA Mentor Program, I picked Hunter to be the cofounder because of his extensive practical knowledge, ability to communicate, sense of humor, and his desire to help our profession. The program led to the book, 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career.

Stan: Hunter has done much more for our profession than is seen in our publications. He has recognized the need to inspire students at an early age to aspire to become engineers.

Greg: Hunter, what got you started and what have you done in helping grade schools?

Hunter: The professors I remember best were those who took time away from the usual curriculum to do presentations and show us how the subject related to the "real world." The slight diversion from the usual lesson plan created a huge difference in the class's understanding and enjoyment of the subject.

When my two boys began elementary school, I was alarmed to find they didn't enjoy the science classes nearly as much as I had. After some questioning, I came to realize that the teachers didn't have the tools they needed to make the class interesting. They were under pressure to stick to the curriculum, had essentially no equipment nor funds to buy any, and in some cases, the teacher's knowledge might not extend much beyond the details provided in the textbook. I decided to step in and help.

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At the beginning of each year, I would meet the teachers and offer to come in and talk to the class on whatever topic the teacher desired. I also asked the teacher for a list of materials that the teacher needed, which I purchased and donated. The only requirement that I insisted upon was that at least half of the materials be reuseable year to year. The teacher and I would pick a subject that complimented the lesson, and I would create a presentation specifically designed to be way more "show" than tell.

It is one thing to talk about states of matter with kindergarteners; it is quite another thing to use dry ice to demonstrate the state change, use the invisible gas to extinguish candles as if by magic, and ultimately create Technicolor volcanos with baking soda, vinegar, food color, soap and a bit of dry ice to create extra smoke!

Most of the presentations involved simple things that could be found around the house or could be purchased for a very small cost. I used a mirror outside to shine sunlight into a dark classroom and split the beam into a spectrum of colors with a prism. I shined a flashlight through glasses of red and green colored water to show how red and green light make yellow while mixing the two liquids created a dark gray.

I demonstrated the power of vacuum by boiling water in an empty quart paint can, quickly hammering on the top, dipping the can into a bucket of water, and holding up the collapsed can seconds later. Momentum and inertia were demonstrated using bicycle tires, smashing cans with car tires, creating Lego tops and throwing rocks with a working trebuchet. I also showed how the physics of the baseball swing and bat combine to hit home runs by maximizing momentum transfer.

With each year my collection of science "toys" grew. I would ultimately buy a 400,000-volt Van de Graf generator, a 250,000-volt Tesla coil and incorporate a Chinese army surplus hand-crank generator into a setup that allowed an energetic student to see how much effort it took to power a radio, turn a fan and light a Q-beam light. My favorite presentation was one I called "Chemistry—from Alchemy to the Present Day," which involved one impressive chemical magic trick after another. I lit candles using water, had a magic jug that poured out a different color each time it was used and finished with a trick where two clear beakers of "water" were mixed and poured from glass to glass until suddenly both beakers and the liquid flowing between them turned dark black in the blink of an eye.


Stan: What did you do to get the students involved?

Hunter: I created competition. One contest required each group of students to protect an egg during a 10-foot drop to concrete using as few materials as possible. Another required them to create the tallest building possible using sheets of paper and their math textbooks as "floors." (The first floor had to be at least six inches off the floor, and each book and piece of paper had a certain "cost," but the team made money for every inch the book was above the ground.) The contests showed both engineering design and economics were important and, believe it or not, you can make a building six feet high using only paper to support the books!

Greg: What shouldn't people do when speaking to a class about engineering as a possible profession?

Hunter: You don't want an engineer coming in and talking to his shoes about technical details. Make the topic fun and interesting!

I love talking at the "career nights." I bring in radio-controlled airplanes, chemical magic tricks and Tesla coils to show how fascinating engineering can be. I also point out that everything in the room is "engineered." From the clothes they wear to the desks they sit at to the walls and ceiling above them, all are designed and built by equipment created by engineers. And of course the pay isn't bad either!

Stan: What have you seen as a result?

Hunter: I have been amazed at the number of kids who have come up years later fondly remembering the presentations I had done and telling me how it got them started down a technical career path. And the cycle continues. Even though both of my sons have moved into high school and college, I am still asked by teachers to present to their classrooms. And even my boys are starting to do presentations of their own as part of their community service projects.

Greg: You called me in Austin from Dallas about a possible get-together. You said you were doing something with FIRST Robotics contestants. How did you get started in this program?

Hunter: The ISA president, at the end of his address to ISA Automation Week 2011, said that a FIRST team in a Dallas Robot Challenge had their tools stolen right before the start of the season's competition. I offered to help, and to make sure the money was most effectively used, I set up an account at a local hardware store to let the team buy what they needed. (The store offered the team a discount rate and partially matched my donation.)

The team invited me to join them at the Texas regional competition in Dallas, where I found myself rolling up my sleeves and working with the students to fine-tune a robot that could shoot basketballs. They did not realize there was a weight limit, so the robot had to be redesigned on the spot.

Radical changes were made to the whole structure. Also, a lot of gearing was wearing out, and motors were burning out because of all the shooting needed for the extensive judging during the competition. Despite it all, the team did quite well, and I have to say it was a very fun time.

Greg: The key to promoting our profession is communication. We need to trigger a fascination with the "why and how." Once in the profession, we need communication to make the most of our talents. For what we have learned from the ISA Mentor program, check out the August 2013 Control article, "Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other," and the January/February 2013 InTech article, "Enabling New Automation Engineers."

"Top Twenty Reasons to Become an Engineer"

20) There are a lot of things that need fixing – bridges, tax codes, government policy...
19) You can wear what you want – nobody expects an engineer to follow fashion trends.
18) You'll always have the best computer, largest tool collection, and a running car.
17) Neighbors reward you for fixing their stuff with free meals and beer.
16) Your kid's math homework questions are no problem.
15) Unlike most majors, finding a job is never an issue.
14) You get to play with really cool gadgets and get paid for it.
13) We have WAY too many lawyers and politicians already!
12) As an engineer you will never have to ask any one if they want fries with that.
11) Postmodern Russian literature sounds impressive, but no one will pay you for that expertise.
10) "Engineer" is easier to spell than astrophysicist.
9) If you are too sane to become a psychologist, then become an engineer.
8) Don't forget Robot Wars!
7) Engineers can beat up most drama majors.
6) Doctors work with gooier parts.
5) If all else fails, you can build a date!
4) Accountants only get to play with other people's money.
3) The coffee pot is always hot and if it is not then you can fix it.
2) McDonalds employs more marine biologists then engineers.
1) You get to wear the striped hat and drive the train.