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Engaging the Next Generation September 18, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Fifteen years. How much can we accomplish in such a short time? As I write this, I just read President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren. His words are likely to be clouded by the bickering that inevitably seems to take center stage these days. However, regardless of your politics, his thoughts reflect many professions’ struggles with how to motivate the next generation(s) and encourage study of subjects that don’t seem to hold quite the value they once did — especially math and science. Engineers are no strangers to this debate, and some have taken proactive steps to preserve the integrity of the profession while encouraging and attracting new entrants.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has addressed this issue many times in the past, with a 2006 summit producing “The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025.” This handbook is a useful tool for focusing our efforts, but is (as it states) merely a vision, not necessarily a plan of action. It presents a convenient “target audience” of those who would be practicing engineers in 2025 — now just 15 years away —to provide today’s engineers and educators a frame of reference for the promotion of our services. As noble as this goal may be, I believe there is a fallacy at work.

Doing the math, the engineer in 2025 would be about 12 years old today — a particularly familiar demographic to me as it includes my own daughter. While the arithmetic provides us with a tidy age group upon which to focus that vision, it does nothing to provide a basis for actually reaching it. Ostensibly, it comes down to a numbers game: to address and engage as many of this demographic as possible, hoping that a certain percentage will somehow discover the spark that leads to a successful engineering career. However, this analytical (read: engineer-friendly) approach misses an even simpler idea, but one which may suffer because it has more to do with biology and psychology than math. This brings us to Dr. John Medina.

Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who recently wrote “Brain Rules,” a compendium of scientific knowledge about how we think, remember, and, most significantly, how different biological and environmental factors can physically affect our minds. Anyone who is motivating, attracting, teaching, and then following the next cadre of engineers would do well to get an introduction to the subject.

It turns out — is scientifically proven — that humans pay the most attention to and recall better those things that are interesting to them. Who knew? It may just be that what is interesting — even compelling — to today’s professionals simply doesn’t show up on my 12-year-old’s radar screen. She would not be excited about engineering as a series of disparate projects, interspersed with the side-project of somehow describing it in passionate language. She is not interested in pipes, asphalt, concrete, and steel per se. She wants the bigger picture.

The next generation (as they always have) want to do something they are passionate about. That means not necessarily presenting features of the profession and hoping to sell them on it, much as your last car purchase. It means entering a dialogue to find out what our future leaders are interested in now, and then expanding on those interests to describe how they and engineering can mutually benefit each other. In a sense, although they will eventually be the leaders of our industry, right now, they are our clients. How are we serving them?

Next month, I’ll address another of Medina’s rules to examine if we are creating the right environment for today’s engineers, before we even worry about tomorrow’s.

–from Insider’s View, September 2009

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