What makes kids want to become engineers?

December 7, 2011, 8:41 am

Many indicators are pointing to a critical shortage of engineers among the current high school generation. What’s the cause of all that? A study (PDF) by the nonprofit organization Change the Equation (with backing from Intel), focusing on 1004 students between the ages of 13 and 18 with computer access, suggests two things: a perception of difficulty coupled with an overall lack of knowledge about what engineering really is in the first place.

The Intel survey showed 63 percent of the students ages 13 to 18 have never considered the career despite having “generally positive opinions of engineers and engineering.” The perception that engineering is difficult also played a part in the lack of job consideration.

But the teens were especially interested when they learned about the potential for engineering to help others, such as saving the Chilean miners who were trapped in 2010, delivering clean water to communities in Third World countries.

Whole article here.

The students who are not interested in engineering are most likely to use the word “difficult” to describe engineering, which suggests that the perceived difficulty contributes to the lack of interest. But once those students were told about some specific ways engineering contributes to their lives and the well-being of the world, they still perceived engineering as difficult but then also indicated that there was now interest in the subject and an indication that learning more would change their minds about studying the subject.

And among the students who are considering engineering as a career, the words “difficult”, “collaborative”, “cool”, and “gratifying” are used with more or less equal frequency to describe engineering. Difficult and cool, not difficult but cool.

This goes back to what I said here about STEM subjects generally. It’s not the perceived difficulty of those subjects that drives students away or keeps them out. Students are willing to take on difficult tasks as long as they know there will be some payoff — for themselves or for the world, or both — at the end of it. Motivation and information about where students’ work is headed are the keys to getting and keeping them in the STEM subjects, it seems.


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