Two years ago, I taught a science and engineering after-school program to a group of fifth and sixth grade girls. I asked them what engineering is. No surprise, their answers were all associated with fixing things and building a building. This echoes some research findings that these are common misconceptions about engineering. After completing the program, the girls could identify what engineering is. But they still did not want to pursue engineering as a career choice. What went wrong?
I think it is the way that we present engineering to them. Next Generation Science Standards 2013 defines engineering in a very broad sense to mean "any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to a particular human problem." In short, the essence of engineering is a goal-directed problem-solving activity to find the best solution for a human-made problem. This is really important work that will benefit large numbers of people. Now, how can we convey that to the youth?
National Academic Engineering did an experiment to find out. They sent out some text messages to test people's reactions to statements about engineering.
The messages that got the most positive reactions from the public were:
- engineering makes a world of difference
- engineers are creative problem-solvers
- engineering helps shape the future
- engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety
- engineering use math and science to solve problems
- engineering is the hardest major and job
We do not want to scare our audiences off by saying "you have to be good at science and mathematics in order to be an engineering major." But the truth is, you do. If a student doesn't know that, and doesn't prepare to college by studying math and science, then in reality, she will very likely end up changing her major and career choice from engineering to something else. What do you think? Do we need to sugarcoat engineering to get kids interested?
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