Math scores improve, but children retain engineering misconceptions

As U.S. students math scores are increasing, more than 85% of youth ages 8-17 say they aren’t interested in engineering as a future career and their parents aren’t encouraging it either. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) report released last month, fourth grade students in the U.
By Control Engineering Staff March 1, 2009

As U.S. students math scores are increasing, more than 85% of youth ages 8-17 say they aren’t interested in engineering as a future career and their parents aren’t encouraging it either.

In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) report released last month, fourth grade students in the U.S. improved 11 points in math between 2003 and 2007 and eighth graders jumped 16 points since 1995, says Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International. They now rank at least in the top one-third compared to other countries. TIMMS is an international comparison that measures the mathematics and science knowledge and skills of fourth- and eighth graders.

The expressed disinterest in engineering was based on a new national survey of youth and adults conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of ASQ (American Society for Quality). The National Science Foundation estimates a projected shortage of 70,000 engineers by 2010 so an overwhelming majority of kids stating they have no interest in engineering careers could have serious consequences for the U.S. economy. This is difference between perceived need and expected supply of engineers is commonly referred to as the skills gap.

Based on the ASQ survey, kids aren’t interested in engineering because:

  • They don’t know much about it (44%).

  • The Geek perception is still at work as they think engineering would be a boring career (30%).

  • They don’t feel confident enough in their math or science skills (21%) to be good at it, despite the fact that the largest number of kids ranked math (22%) and science (17%) as their favorite subjects.

To help change these perceptions, some engineers are taking matters into their own hands. Joe Atkinson, process control leader for Leaf River Cellulose in New Augusta, MS, and a member of Control Engineering’s “Automation & Control” group on Facebook shared advice on what he and others are doing to help increase interesting in engineering among school kids.

“It seems to me that the problem is awareness (or lack thereof) of the engineering field,” said Atkinson. “Our local chapter of NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) hosts a dinner for ‘high performing’ junior and senior high school students and their parents. At the dinner we have representatives of the three ABET-acredited engineering schools in the state give presentations about their schools. I think events like this, where we have the opportunity to interact with talented students, are the key.”

During these dinners, representatives from local engineering colleges explain their programs, as well as explain what engineers do, where they work, and the interesting projects in which they may be involved. Local businesses and organizations that hire engineers send trinkets, such as pencils, notepads, and stress balls to the dinner.

Editor’s note: If you would like to add your comments to this discussion or contact Joe for more information, please join our “Automation & Control” group on Facebook. Just search under “groups” for “Automation & Control” and look for the one with the Control Engineering logo.