Exciting the Next Generation Engineer

FIRST helps capture the imagination of America’s youth.

When Arami Rosales was little, she wanted to be an astronomer. However, like most childhood dreams, Arami’s didn’t survive long once she got to high school. However, Arami’s dream didn’t die in disillusion the way so many youthful fantasies do. It morphed and evolved. During her freshman year at Liberal Arts and Science Academy High School in Austin, Texas, she joined the school’s FIRST Robotics team (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Now, three years along, the 17-year-old, grade-11 student is leading her team, Purple Haze, into this year’s competition and planning a career in engineering.

This is exactly the kind of change of heart people such as International Society of Automation (ISA) Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Patrick Gouhin, James Truchard, president and chief executive officer of Austin, Texas-based automation vendor National Instruments Corp., and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson want to see. Each of these people, and many more, have been growing more and more concerned about a threat looming over not only the high-tech industry but the future national security and prosperity of the United States.

In a June 2008 speech to the American Society for Mechanical Engineers, Jackson put it thus, “The question is: are we, as a nation, equipped with the human capital for the robust innovation the ... challenge demands of us? Innovation requires investment in research and development, of course, but fundamentally, it requires people. As a university president, and as a theoretical physicist, I have deep concerns that our national innovation capacity is in jeopardy. Converging forces have created what I call the ‘Quiet Crisis,’ which is eroding the production of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists we must have for the scope of innovation these challenges demand.”

Jackson’s fear, that in the very near future there won’t be enough trained engineers and scientists to meet our society’s current needs, let alone invent new technologies and support economic growth, is borne out by the statistics being produced by increasingly fearful bureaucrats and industry observers.

By most projections, upwards of 25 percent of the engineers and scientists that make up America’s innovative brain trust will retire within the next few years. For example, according to a November 2006 report from the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, “nearly one-third of the civilian scientific and technical workforce in the Department of Defense is currently eligible to retire” and less than 10 percent of NASA’s scientific staff are under 40 years of age. These are the people whose imaginations were galvanized by Sputnik and responded to President John F. Kennedy’s call to action to help America win the space race. They are responsible for the tremendous technology-driven prosperity experienced in the ‘90s, and they will all be gone soon, leaving a vacuum where the country’s innovation advantage used to be.

Of course, the problem is not one of those that can be solved with a snap of the finger. According to Stephanie Brierty, K-12 academic program manager at National Instruments, it is deeply rooted in a cultural apathy toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Celebrate education

“The issue is that the United States doesn’t celebrate a good education and intelligence the way other countries do. Here we celebrate basketball and rock stars and don’t stress education as an important part of their lives. You can see that in some public schools where they have some budget; if there is competition between the football team and the computer lab, the team gets new jerseys and the lab goes without.”

“The media glorifies many professions—medicine, law enforcement, and so on. But there is nothing that glorifies scientists or engineers,” says University of Cincinnati Professor Kelly Cohen, Ph.D. “And if they do ...then it’s geek imagery, he never gets the girl...those images put a damper on interest (in a STEM career).”

The scope of the problem is such that any solution must involve both government and industry and take the long view, something that can be challenging for a business which is usually more concerned with the quarterly earnings statements than where its innovation is going to come from ten years down the road.

“The danger is in waiting to address the crisis until it is upon us, because then—due to the cumulative, decades-long nature of the education of a scientist or engineer—it will be too late,” says Rensselaer’s Jackson. “We must wake up to the crisis because the United States’ capacity for innovation is inextricably interlinked with our economic and national security. Failure to act soon will undermine our national capacity for innovation, thereby threatening our economic well-being, safety and global leadership.”

The battleground is America’s elementary and high school students, and the challenge is to find a cause that captures the imagination of the current generation of kids the same way the space race did for the baby boomers.

FIRST approach

Recognizing the value American society places on sports and competition, and the way competitive events engage kids, noted inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST in Manchester, N.H., in 1989. The inaugural FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students kicked off in 1992. As of 2007, the competition, which calls for high school teams to create a robot from scratch to accomplish a task that changes each year, included almost 33,000 students on 1,303 teams, and had spread across borders into Canada, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Israel, Mexico and other countries.

The scope of FIRST’s target audience has also expanded dramatically as organizers try to engage kids at younger ages. Today, FIRST has grown from a robotics competition aimed at high schoolers to engage kids as early as age six through the FIRST Lego League, Junior FIRST Lego League, and FIRST Tech Challenge competitions. Each competition has four, equally weighted elements: teamwork, design, presentation of the concept and the games where you get to see exactly how well your creation performs.

“It’s really fun and interesting,” says Chase Dean, a grade eight student at Veritas Academy in Austin, Texas, who is now in his fourth year participating in the FIRST Lego League. “It’s definitely encouraging to pursue a career in engineering if you know what it’s all about. Some of the things that I’ve learned [include] how to present to a group of judges and how to keep cool under pressure. I’ve learned about programming. I’ve learned teamwork, which has been challenging this year, and about proportional control.”

Rosales agrees. “FIRST is something every school should do. The best way to learn is with hands-on activities. You get to go into the shop and experience the thought process. It takes you out of the class...being in the shop is a totally different from being the in the classroom. When you create a robot and go to competition, you get to see what every other team was thinking about. It takes something boring and dry and makes it exciting and engaging. FIRST is helping [foster] creativity in our generation.”

“It’s been really exciting for me to see the kids get experience of working with the technology, but also presenting their ideas to a panel of engineers and their peers. That is going to be valuable in any career,” comments Eric Dean, Chase’s father and an engineer at National Instruments.

In his acceptance speech for the FIRST Founder’s Award, NI’s Truchard talked about why he and National Instruments support FIRST. “I enjoy seeing the excitement of the teams, how young students are getting engaged and experiencing the joys of engineering, working together in a collaborative way, having fun all the way and hopefully looking [at] and getting excited about a career in engineering.”

Automation perspective

“We’re feeling it now,” says ISA’s Gouhin. “We all know people who have retired only to be deluged with consulting offers. Thanks to the way the recession has messed up people’s retirement plans, the worst is still a few years off, but it is coming.”

According to research conducted by the ISA’s Vernon Trevathan before the recession, based on then-current trends and assumptions, in the United States alone, 15,000 new engineers would be needed each year for the next decade just to replace the people who are leaving the workforce, Gouhin points out. Note that unlike Jackson, he’s not talking about NASA or the DOD. Gouhin is concerned primarily with the automation industry.

“I believe that the discipline of automation is not well understood outside of our own profession,” says Gouhin. “This causes a problem for us because we talk amongst ourselves and we know who we are and what we do, but much of the rest of the world does not—and this means that perhaps they don’t take the interest that they should or need to. Automation needs to have an elevated status as an engineering, technology, and scientific field that is every bit as real and significant as more readily understood disciplines like chemical or electrical engineering.”

To accomplish this, the ISA has launched several programs, including direct outreach to pre-college students though events such as iAU2M8.09, a student-oriented automation-education event incorporated into ISA EXPO 2009, which took place in October. The ISA has also partnered with the Automation Federation to launch www.automationiscool.org to publicize positive stories associated with automation and a career in the field.

“That is a huge part of the problem. No one has ever told that story before. There’s not a kid out there who even knows what an automation engineer does. The community has a responsibility to tell the good stories that are out there.”

Gouhin would also like to see Universities offer courses more focused toward  producing automation professionals. “Companies need automation professionals. What they’ve got to do today is take the closest thing they can get and then take the next five to seven years training them to be an automation engineer. We want to identify the need for an automation technology degree program and get universities to start pumping those graduates out so they can hit the ground running. They’ll still need training, but it won’t take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

However, before they want to be automation engineers there is still the challenge of attracting them to the field.

“What do we have that’s going to generate a fire in the belly of these kids?” wonders Gouhin’s colleague, ISA President and Indiana State University professor Gerald Cockrell, one of the aforementioned baby boomers drawn into engineering by the space race. “Today we have the green revolution, but I don’t think that it’s a strong enough hook.”

Cockrell points out the glamour being associated with some professions and how media attention drives interest. “Look at crime scene investigation: you see gobs of these shows on TV, and at our school, that has become one of the most in-demand programs. So many young folks see engineering—see technology—as a tool. They don’t care how their cell phone works or what might be done to make it better. They don’t see it as something exciting that they might want to make a career of. Once you make that connection, they will come back.”

Arami Rosales is a case in point. She is living, breathing evidence of the success of programs like FIRST, Project Lead the Way and their brethren. “I’m completely in love with the idea of being in FIRST,” she says. “FIRST is giving me building blocks that will help me be more successful in engineering later on.”

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