Thursday, June 16, 2011

Engineering from the bottom up

By Bob Confer

Last week during a speech about the jobs market, President Obama talked about something that’s missing from our nation’s efforts to remain competitive in the global economy: Engineers. He’s come up with a plan to create 10,000 engineers annually through a private-public partnership in which corporations would strengthen their internship programs and the government would help stabilize collegiate engineering programs while offering students the financial assistance needed to finish their degrees.

It’s definitely a well intentioned idea. But, Obama has his sights on the wrong target. He’s aiming a little too high. College students shouldn’t be the greatest concern. All of the incentives in the world won’t turn out engineers if high school students first aren’t interested in the subject.

When was the last time you heard a teenager say she wanted to be an engineer or scientist? Kids may say they do at a younger age (like 8 or 9) but as they age, science and math (the building blocks of engineering) don’t remain sexy to them. If a kid doesn’t have the slightest interest in this difficult yet rewarding path of study by the end of the tenth grade, there’s really no way to get him or her hooked on it, let alone prepared for what college holds.

In order to produce engineers we really have to get the kids started young on mastering - even loving - science and math. As a country we do a very poor job of that. Depending on what study you read, American students typically rank in the low-to-mid 20s globally in those subjects. That’s why our influence is decreasing around the world: We aren’t making engineers, products, and strides because we aren’t making science and math interesting and worthwhile.

A lot of the blame falls upon our education system. Federal and state bureaucracy forces us to teach to a test, not to the actual mastery of a subject. What is learned from that style? Very little, obviously. That’s expected, as rote methods can make science and math extremely dry. If today’s youth were exposed to those subjects as you and I were (and as they still are in the Boy and Girl Scouts and other youth programs) with experiential learning, they might dig it. Hands on experimentation and experience are what make the sciences so attractive…just remember the excitement you felt when you were able to see how and why things worked. Now, so little of that wonderment is allowed to flourish within our students.

Even more blame for this falls onto parents and society at large. Most kids pooh-pooh science and math and so do their parents; many of them have become disinterested in those topics and insist on directing their kids to other hobbies and jobs, things that are familiar to them. The support just isn’t there at home. Nor can it be found elsewhere: Those who like science and math are labeled as nerds by classmates and - especially nowadays - popular culture. What image-conscious young teen would want to venture into those pursuits for fear of being derided or laughed at? Unless the kid is like Teflon, he wants to fit in. Once that foundation for a lifetime of science is removed during those formative years, it’s probably never coming back.

These are just some of the many obstacles for completing the equation that yields engineers. Addressing them in the college years is too little too late. If Obama wants to see meaningful results with his competitiveness goals he’d promote engineering by engineering from the bottom up, fixing our broken education system and our lame outlook on the intellectual pursuits. Let’s make science fun again!

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 20 June 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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