Sep 13, 2011

One small step...

In Memory of the Anniversary of Dad's Birth
Let's make it very clear. I loved my father very much, but I suspect we never really understood each other. Take, for example, his desire to get me hooked on science and engineering. He once said, “You should love doing it so much, you don't even have time to go to the bathroom!” I responded that was just silly. Soiling one's pants did not show passion just bad judgment in prioritizing necessary business.

I think he wished that I, like the son of a colleague, would wire up my room with alarm systems and booby traps for the prying parent (like himself!). He even tried to enroll me in the local science museum's Saturday classes. I tried. I hated getting up Saturday morning, driving (I got car sick easily), and being with a bunch of people who I didn't know, wouldn't talk with me, and doing things which were way simpler than the Heathkits we had at home.

He probably passed from this earth believing his daughter just didn't have the passion around things technical because he didn't see in her what he saw in himself. This blog obviously shows that the passion exists, so I hope he's looking back at me a bit happier.

I mention this because sometimes parents use the wrong metrics and the wrong venues for their children. The transition from children's interest to “typical engineering activities” is far from standard. In fact, looking back, my willingness to learn more about engineering and technology came from my desire to spent time with him. Dad had far better success in getting me to do electronics by inviting me downstairs to solder the next bit of the Heathkit Hero robot with him rather than giving me a kit of electronic parts and components. I actually got myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to learn assembly language programming because it was time to be with him. I even tried to learn Morse code because I loved the delicious mischievous smile he had whenever we sent secret messages to each other.

Recently, my friend was dismayed that her daughter was not “taking” to the latest engineering activities she received for Christmas. She expected her daughter to spend hours working on them on her own, much like her own engineering brother did when he was young. Success with her daughter, I informed her, would not look like success with her brother. And the activities might look slightly different. As a typical girl (pink feathers, jewelry, and posing for fashion shots were what got her excited), she would need to enter the engineering world through a different door.

To account for her need to be social, we got her Zoob – the game to play with others and to develop her 2-d to 3-d spatial skills. We also got her a marble run kit to make roller coasters while giving her an instinct about slopes, gravity, and potential and kinetic energy that science and math teachers could tap into in the future. For another friend, I suggested Flexeez and her daughter promptly made herself a dress out of the materials while getting a feel for shapes and structural requirements of an organically shaped design.

You will be the most successful if you start with where your child's interests naturally fall. Many roads lead to skills required for engineering, so you can be more focused in how you guide them in their journey. These possible first steps implement the guidelines in my book, Engineering for the Uninitiated.

>> See more ways to help your child take the first step into building engineering skills
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Sep 10, 2011

Engineering for Social People

As I was researching for future book for Mechanical Engineers, I found out something interesting about engineering career advising. Get this...

Our Career Development director taught me about Holland Codes, a system for determining students' strong interests. No surprise: Engineers are highly Realistic (R) people which means they tend to be concrete, present-thinking, and hand-on oriented. However, the interesting part was how different types of engineering split on the secondary interest.
  • Electrical and Chemical Engineers have Investigative (I) as a secondary interest. They have more "scientific" personalities than other engineers; science people have "I" as a primary interest. They love analysis activities and really strive to "dig out" the specifics of phenomena they encounter.
  • Civil Engineers have Enterprising (E) as their secondary. This means they are more like business folks who love the interaction of politics, economics, large ventures, and risk. Civ E's I know are comfortable with LARGE scale projects involving a lot of players and very big money.
  • Mechanical Engineers had Social (S) as their secondary, which means that they like more interaction with people, seek out ways to understand and support others.
Frankly, this latter analysis of MEs surprised me. Not that I subscribe to the stereotype that engineers are socially inept geeks, but compared to education majors, social workers, and counselors, we really aren't SOCIAL.

My Career Development helped me process it: Do you work on team projects? she asked. Well, yes, I answered. Does success require successful human interaction, consideration, and motivation? Well, yes, mechanical engineering is so broad, even a strictly mechanical engineering project will require a range of experts.

In college, my EE roommate observed that MEs danced around in lab and joked around whereas the EEs stuck in their groups and often scolded each other. Today, practicing MEs have indicated that only about 20% of their work requires direct application of the technical knowledge that they were tested on while in school. The other 80% consists of a high degree of people interaction and communication, something they didn't actually learn in their formal education. One engineer even said he wanted to write a book to the younger generation, warning them about this. He was a bit relieved when I told him Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School might be a useful start; I don't think he had a lot of time on his hands.


I recently ran across The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, which further underlines the expected social interactions engineers must have with managers, clients, and vendors. No wonder ABET accreditation requires a successful engineer to have a well-rounded education.

When I was growing up, engineering was suggested to students who had interest and aptitude in science and mathematics. I have now refined the process to help students navigate the different types of engineering. I stay with some of the primary types, for simplicity, treating some of the other engineers are specialties within these larger ones (blame Princeton for my desire to keep a minimum number of engineering fields). My questions are:
  • Why engineering? Their answers give me an idea whether science, mathematics, or engineering is the best fit. If they love learning why things do what they do, love to set up experiments to figure out which variables that affect the situation, then science or a highly investigative field is probably best for them. If they really like the puzzles, logic, and pattern finding -- and the actual application is not as important, then mathematics (or computers) may actually be better. If they really are very problem-oriented, strive to find the solutions to particular nagging situations, then engineering may be it.
  • What types of engineering are you considering? Their answer gives me insight into their motivations. What types of things do they like to work with? Do they like machinery, calculations, electronics? Do they like large things, human-sized things, or things you can't even see with the naked eye. For example, My husband and I are both MEs because like cats, we find things far more interesting when they move.
  • What courses did you like in high school? Why? This third question helps me triangulate on their interests and gives me a clue about their theoretical vs practical inclinations. A friend asked me whether I advise a high school student to be an Electrical Engineer or Computer Scientist. I responded with the simple question of "What does he like to do? Work with the computer or work with electronics?" These are really very different jobs and thus different educations. If he didn't like doing one, why would he want to study it? It was a revelation to my friend who was just thinking in terms of salary and job security.
  • What do you like to do for fun? This gives yet another data point for triangulation. It also gives me a sense of the student's experience with tools and technology, communication, project management, creativity, persistence, and problem solving. With this information, I can give more concrete advice on what the students should focus on in future years.
  • What would your dream job look like/entail? This is sometimes harder for students to imagine. Either they have no idea what working for a living would even look like, or they want do what they want to do, when the want to do it (who wouldn't love to do that?). However, if they do have an idea of what their ideal job dynamics, challenges, and work environment would be, that helps me know whether a more investigative, social, or enterprising discipline is best.
So far, I've been able to predict the right engineering for my students. One didn't believe me, but later tried to switch into the field I suggested during her graduate years, and another ended up switching from aerospace to mechanical when she realized (as I had been suggesting) it provided a broader experience for her interests.

Okay, as Han Solo said in Star Wars, let's not get cocky...

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