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September 2006

Of Polls and Pipelines

By Ralph W. Wyndrum Jr., IEEE-USA President

I think it's great that a sample of the American public ranked engineers among the top 10 most admired professionals, according to a Harris Interactive Poll conducted in July.

I'd like it even better if more people remembered that the doctors, nurses, scientists and military officers who garnered the most admiration would be hard-pressed without the instruments we engineers conceived and designed.

Healers and protectors deserve strong support and sentiments, but the poll did turn my thoughts to that ubiquitous American value known as image. It seems engineers have occupied a middling pedestal in the public's mind for years now. I equate this status with a dearth of understanding about our profession, which leads to the dubious task of "selling" our profession to students who help sustain the engineering pipeline. How do we bring a legion of men and women out from behind their desks and lab benches to put a human face on the work we do? How do we tell gifted grade-schoolers that this country is counting on their math and science acumen to create the products of the future? How do we persuade educators to champion technical literacy early enough so students can acquire the skills to invent those products?

To see themselves in our esteemed field, our youths must first have the same accelerated K-12 math, science and technology education that is a staple in China, Japan and India — societies where curricula featuring not one but two or more years of algebra, physics, calculus, chemistry and computer science are de rigueur.

But we must also capture students' hearts by vividly conjuring the future inventions for which they as engineers can someday take credit — newfangled TVs and music recording devices, space stations, life-saving surgical and diagnostic tools, military defense systems, technology for urban crime-fighting and security, interactive museum exhibits, computer games and gadgets they never imagined owning. That is where you can help make a difference, by making time to explain to teachers and students what it is that you do as engineers and how the technologies you are helping to create will be used to make our collective lives better.

Technical literacy is a global concern and IEEE's campaign for early technical literacy is built on the inspiring, grass-roots Teacher In-Service Program (TISP), with its emphasis on bringing age-appropriate technology lesson plans into local schools and school districts with the help of IEEE volunteers. IEEE-USA is working with IEEE's Educational Activities Board to establish the TISP program throughout the six U.S. regions. That outreach is augmented by TryEngineering.org, a Web site created in partnership with IBM, as a resource for students (ages 8-18), their parents, teachers and school counselors to help them better understand engineering and engineering careers.

In August, IEEE also joined the societies sponsoring "Design Squad", a new television show produced by WGBH-Boston with support from the National Science Foundation. "Design Squad" is designed to introduce kids 9 through 13 to engineering concepts by pitting teams of teenagers in a competition to design and build devices that accomplish assigned tasks. Drawing on WGBH's success with "Building Big" and "Zoom into Engineering," the new show's goal is to demonstrate "problem-solving habits of mind", such as the ability to apply math, science and engineering information, brainstorming, design and testing, and teamwork. "Design Squad" will premiere on PBS during Engineers Week in February 2007. The TV show will be supplemented by a robust website and outreach campaign. To see a sneak peak of the show, meet the cast and hosts, and learn more about the educational resources visit: www.pbskidsgo.org/designsquad.

Through our Precollege Education Committee, IEEE-USA supports these technical literacy efforts with promotion, volunteers and with resources to assist teachers and parents such as the Engineer-Educator Grant program, which augments funding for extracurricular K–12 science and technology programs. The latest addition to our engaging arsenal is a gem of a brochure for 11- to 13-year-olds called My Science, My Math, My Engineering! Its six colorful panels get the conversation going on happening, real-world "stuff" like satellites, Mp3 players and biosecurity. It spurs kids to get involved in engineering-oriented competitions and clubs, and points them toward the online riches of eweek.org (with its own plethora of links to discoverengineering.org, engineeringsights.org, et al.), ieee-virtual-museum.org and other indispensable Web addresses. The brochure was conceived in Fall 2005 and its content and design tested prior to production. Feedback from teachers and middle-school students in Indianapolis and Denver was sought to gauge its readability and potential for sparking interest. The result is an approachable package of words and pictures geared to this target group.

Learn more about our Pre-college Education Committee or consider making a tax-exempt gift to one of IEEE-USA's public-awareness programs. We may not be politicians, but we do care where we stand in the polls.

 

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