Monday, January 05, 2009

Encouraging the Budding Engineer

Christine had great questions about a middle schooler who is interested in pursuing engineering as a profession.

I graduated as a mechanical engineer from Rutgers in 1993. I worked as a software programmer for a few years and then moved to Connecticut to be a manufacturing engineer. That lead to quite a lot of robotics work. I lead the specification writing and purchase team for a number of new robotic machines we purchased. When they were ready to be delivered, I developed a test plan and then tested them and finally wrote procedures for the technicians to follow so they were used correctly. I got to trouble shoot them on the manufacturing floor when they started acting up and wrote a maintenance plan for them. The rest of the time, I was preparing the parts that would go on them and the programs (not programming language, more like a series of steps to run which was automatically generated by software after I input the desired parameters) the robots would run in order to finish the parts. In addition, I would try to find ways to eliminate steps and speed up anything I was working with.

There were a number of factors that I think were very important in becoming an engineer. Of course, you need to get a bachelor's of science degree in engineering (I have a BSME). Math and science skills need to be strong. Those are the most important academic areas. There is no doubt that an engineer is up to their ears in numbers and facts. I had a natural talent for math, so engineering seemed like a good fit. A natural talent helps, but if a kid needs to do hard work to understand their math well--and they do understand it well--then they will be even better off, because engineering college is hard work.

There are some areas that are less academic and yet still important. Logical thinking will serve an engineer well. Enjoying the challenge of finding solutions is really helpful. A skill that I wish I had was more hands-on experience. An eye for detail and follow-through are useful as well. I really enjoyed solving all kinds of logic puzzles when I was a kid. Some of the Critical Thinking Company books are very similar. Crossword puzzles, can help develop some good skills, like eliminating words based on word length and using letters already filled-in for clues. Word finds can help with pattern recognition and spatial skills. Another great way to develop spatial skills is to make paper models--seeing 2-dimensional shapes become 3-dimensions and sketching objects from multiple angles--the reverse. One of the techniques used on IQ tests is to show a drawing of a cube that has each side decorated a different way and the student is then asked to pick which flat representation matches the drawing (below). Building is another great way to increase spatial reasoning. Working with tangrams comes to mind as well, but only for two-dimensions.

Other talents are not usually associated with engineering, but are often needed. Creative thinking, though not what most people would think of in engineering, suits the field well. After all, engineering usually involves coming up with a solution that fits into an existing framework. One skill which is in demand in all fields is interpersonal communication and, for engineering in specific, an ability to communicate with people from different backgrounds and skill levels--in other words, the guys and gals working the machines as well as managers and senior level employees. All jobs require listening to your boss to get your assignments and making sure you have the information you need to complete your work. Engineering also involves talking to people you work with to make sure what you are working on will satisfy what they need and work with the things they design or use. This would be like working on a team where each of the members has an individual or two-person project that needs to meld into a whole.

There is also an important component in being positive about manufacturing, technology, and progress. Whenever I can, I point out how inventions, ingenuity, science, engineering, and progress have advanced our knowledge, standard of living, or leisure time. For instance, I talk to Hanover about how much humans have accomplished: space travel, satellites, computers, sky scrapers, mechanisms, robotic machines, even kitchen appliances. When Hanover was heading to a large arena, I told her to just look at the immensity of it and realize that some person came up with that idea and other people helped make it reality. Another way to help encourage children's ability to understand engineering's importance and possibility for impact in the world is through science fiction. And I don't mean malevolent science fiction like Time Machine, Frankenstein, or War of the Worlds. I mean science fiction that has a good story that happens to take place in a future filled with technology.

There are many traits that a good engineer may need to rely on. Not every skill needs to be matured by the time one begins as an engineer, but having an inclination to some while others are strong will help your child be a good engineer right out of the gate.

A kid that likes to tinker, who comes up with ideas that would make life easier, jobs quicker, eliminate tasks altogether, or would be like nothing developed so far, who loves technology and new ideas, who likes to organize things, who enjoys puzzles, who wants to improve the lives of people through technology, who wants a job that involves an office and field or floor work, who wants to earn a decent salary, who doesn't mind getting his or her hands dirty, who works on their own projects in their spare time without parental guidance would probably enjoy being an engineer.

While I see value in the kits that are prepackaged to include everything one needs to complete the tasks, I think it is more advanced to follow directions to make things from materials that need to be adapted or purchased, and then, with enough experience, move on to trying to work within those projects to modify them by changing small parts and see the effect--whether it still works, how it changes, what would need to be changed to accomplish a different goal. Parents can encourage this by asking "I wonder what would happen if you change the length of that rod?" Help your child be self-motivated by allowing them to work on their own projects with minimal help from you. Let them build a fort, make their own furniture, build a boat (which I saw in a great book for boys from 1911), build mechanistic contraptions, model rockets or potato guns don't appeal to me much, but would to some kids, work on cars eventually. This seems like a good start, and check out the links underneath too.

Get to the tinkering:
Back issues of popular mechanics online!


christinemm said...

Kim thank you again for this!!

I think you should submit it to the Carnival of Homeschooling, deadline is 6pm PST tonight.

My son has a lot of the traits you mention, but not 'likes to organize'. He has natural visual spatial abilties that I am completely lacking.

We own the book you mention too. Hooray. I feel the newer Dangerous Book... is just a rehash of that older, cheaper, and more thorough book so I never bothered to buy the new version.

Have a fantastic day!

Kim said...

I think that you would be surprised how well compartmentalized the 'likes to organize' can be. My room had been a total disaster, but boy could I make lists of things to do. It's not something I learned from my parents, but from reading a great self-help book disguised as fiction (and no, I have no idea what the title was).