Monday, April 10, 2006

Why is engineering uncool?

A friend who works at 3M asked me a question the other day.

“One thing is clear - you love math, science and technology and it’s fun. So, why doesn’t everyone have the same enthusiasm for it as you do? Or, at least, why aren’t there more?”

There’s no reason for them to love it. Why should they? My engineering classmates and I know our answer to this already. It’s how we get ahead. It’s about doing things nobody’s done before because otherwise we’ll be treading the same beaten path and progress will never happen. We’re crazy enough and stubborn enough to Do It Anyway.

We’re anomalies. For your average kid in K-12, innovation gets the snot beaten out of you, both socially and academically. I remember getting bad marks on a physics test because I used one of Einstein’s thought experiments (with moving reference frames) to solve the shoot-the-monkey problem, because I thought it was fun. I remember getting some of the worst grades on math time tests in grade school because I never drilled my times tables at home - I liked spending my time piddling around with such “useless” things as reading Darwin or learning about injection molding. The intellectual high I got out of doing that outweighed the “punishments” I got for it; low marks and the other kids thinking I was a freak.

Most kids don’t get rewarded for being innovative. They get rewarded for filling in the bubbles with a #2 pencil. They get rewarded for doing things the grownups feel safe about calling “unique” and “innovative” because it fits this nice grown-up mold of what is “safely innovative” - just a wee bit off the beaten path (and onto another path that we grown-ups have mapped out for you and call “innovative” - can you find it, can you read our minds?) When kids pull stuff that’s truly crazy, sometimes grownups get freaked out. And that’s hardly encouraging if we want the next generation to grow up unafraid of playing.

What scares me is not that the adults of the world are looking at the state of things and going “AH! We are not innovative enough!” We, the young engineers and hackers of the future, have exactly the same reaction.

What scares me is that the adult response seems to be this: “Ok, kids - we’re going to put these scantron sheet problems on innovation for you; fill them out FASTER! FASTER! MORE! If you can fill in the “innovation” bubbles correctly, we MUST be doing well! NUMBER TWO PENCILS, EVERYBODY!”

How can we change this?

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