Where have all the heroes gone?

For centuries, engineers have created many of the innovations that we enjoy today. In the not-so-distant past, these engineers were regarded as heroes. To this day, we recognize Thomas Edison as a great inventor, the Wright brothers as the fathers of early aviation, and Henry Ford as an automobile pioneer.

03/01/2005


For centuries, engineers have created many of the innovations that we enjoy today. In the not-so-distant past, these engineers were regarded as heroes. To this day, we recognize Thomas Edison as a great inventor, the Wright brothers as the fathers of early aviation, and Henry Ford as an automobile pioneer.

But who can recall that Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented the television cathode ray tube, that Chester F. Carlson invented photocopying, or that Willis Carrier invented air conditioning? Each of these inventions substantially changed our lives, yet these great inventors are virtually unknown. Look around you right now. Nearly everything that you see and use was invented by an engineer. Engineering and technology are integral components of our modern society, yet we now take for granted the modern conveniences of our lives and forget that an engineer made each of them possible.

This cultural lack of interest in engineering extends to the young people in our country. Perhaps one reason that engineering is not as revered as it once was is that children do not have engineering heroes to inspire them. Children are much more likely to see athletes or attorneys portrayed on television as role models instead of engineers. Additionally, children can take classes in a variety of subjects—from math to biology and Spanish to journalism—but there are no classes in engineering. As a result, children are showing less interest in math and science education, and the United States is graduating far fewer engineers from its universities. In fact, in the past 12 years, there has been a 37% decline in engineering interest by college-bound high school seniors.1

Fortunately, there is something we can do to help rekindle an interest in the field of engineering. Several academic programs that can help stimulate early interest in math and science are being introduced in our schools. One of the best methods for showing children the world of engineering is hands-on learning; fun, interactive lessons make the concepts of engineering come to life for students.

One program bringing engineering into our classrooms is RoboLab. Developed by National Instruments, Lego Dacta and Tufts University, RoboLab is an interactive, hands-on learning system that uses a combination of Lego bricks and LabView graphical development software to introduce engineering concepts to students of all ages. Through the program, students from kindergarten through high school use basic engineering concepts to program and build robotic inventions, facilitating communication, evaluation, and innovation in the classroom.

The Infinity Project is another program bringing engineering to high school students. Created by Dr. Geoffrey Orsak at Southern Methodist University, the Infinity curriculum combines a well-written, easy-to-use textbook, "Engineering Our Digital Future," with a technology kit to give high school seniors a sense of the excitement and challenge of engineering. Through this program, students are designing and building musical instruments, creating special effects, and turning PCs into cell phones—all as high school seniors.

By bringing programs like these to schools in your neighborhoods, you can be the hero that introduces children to the fun of engineering. Your support of these types of engineering programs in schools can only enhance the image of engineering as a profession and may give children options that they never knew existed.

Together, we can help make engineers heroes again.

1. "Maintaining a Strong Engineering Workforce," ACT Policy Report, authors R. Noeth, T. Cruce, and M. Harmston, 2003.

RoboLab: www.ni.com/company/robolab.htm

The Infinity Project:

www.infinity-project.org


Author Information
Dr. James Truchard is president, CEO and co-founder of National Instruments in Austin, Texas.




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