Youths’ image of engineering needs a boost

Pre-college engineering programs and camps work on changing youth attitudes and encouraging the innovative minds of the future.

By Bettina Chang September 8, 2009

In the United States, engineering often is stigmatized as an unexciting or "nerdy" field; children never play "mechanical and consulting engineers" on the playground, and engineering is far from firefighter or actress status on the list of things to be "when I grow up." Various studies, statistics, and individuals have argued both ways on whether the United States faces a shortage of engineers. Regardless of this debate, it is more apparent that the nation’s youth is ill-informed and unexcited about engineering careers.

Image problem

A recent Harris Interactive survey conducted on behalf of the American Society for Quality showed that 85% of students age 8 to 17 are not interested in becoming engineers. Of course, if 15% of the country became engineers, we would have more than 45 million engineers instead of the 1.5 million reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics . However, it is alarming that such a large percentage of middle- and high-schoolers eliminate engineering from their possible career choices early in their lives.

What’s a firefighter without a fire protection engineer at the controls?

This might not bode well for the future, but a clear discrepancy between children’s interests and their perception of engineering is more telling. Although the surveyed students were not interested in engineering partly because they didn’t feel confident enough in their math or science skills (21%), the largest number of students ranked math and science as their favorite subjects. In fact, 44% of students said that they simply did not know enough about engineering. This reflects a fundamental disconnect between the reality and the perception of engineering careers.

Luckily, perceptions can be changed, and a variety of programs during school, after school, or during the summer are emerging to spark interest and deliver hands-on experience in engineering to middle and high school students.

School programs

One such program is Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a non-profit educational program that focuses on engineering and biomedical sciences. Schools or school districts can sign up for PLTW, which provides a curriculum of activities-, project-, and problem-based learning that stimulates interest and allows students to apply engineering concepts to real life problems. So far, it seems that the program is working-about 95% of PLTW participants surveyed the summer after their high school graduation said they were preparing for jobs that emphasize engineering, technology and computer science, 57% intended to go on to graduate school, and PLTW students were five times more likely to graduate college as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors than students who do not.

One student works on a Project Lead the Way engineering project. Photo: Project Lead the Way

"The nature of our coursework is that when kids get involved they don’t know they’re interested," said John Lock, president and CEO of PLTW. "Then suddenly they understand that STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] includes rockets and airplanes, or other stuff they do care about. Now they want to be involved and are interested because they understand." PLTW also ensures that school counselors understand the issues of the workforce and potential career paths for the students.

"Teachers and counselors are gatekeepers," said Niel Tebbano, PLTW vice president of operations. "They need to be aware of issues facing workforce and opportunities young people have."


Engineering camps

However, if local schools don’t have PLTW, many of the best engineering schools in the nation host summer camps to hone the skills of young aspiring engineers. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for instance, four different summer camps for K-12 students to stimulate and support interest in STEM fields. UIUC’s Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) includes programs for middle- and high-school students. Both are aimed at showing the students the field of engineering in a way that fosters genuine interest and teaches them how to pursue the field they choose.

"The goal is so [participants] know if they want to go into engineering, and see which discipline suits them," said Mary Weaver, director of WYSE. "Some of the campers come because of their parents, but I think it’s pretty apparent from their applications, in the statements of purpose, that most of them are interested." The application process is very competitive and the waiting list fills up quickly every year, according to Weaver. Many applicants have attended another engineering camp before, and about 50% go on to apply and attend UIUC as engineering majors.

Changing the scene

Some programs specifically encourage females to pursue careers in engineering. Photo: Project Lead the Way

There are also many programs that are trying to shift gender and race patterns in engineering and other STEM fields. As women and African-Americans have historically been underrepresented in STEM fields, universities, companies, and other programs are striving to maintain a balance. The Women in Engineering ProActive Network offers activities and newsletters to introduce students in grades 3-12 to engineering. For those who have already chosen engineering as a career path, the Society of Women Engineers has a list of scholarships that are offered to women who are going into college or graduate school. Additionally, the National Society of Black Engineers has a Pre-College Initiative program that offers grants, scholarships, and competitions for K-12 students.

"When I grow up…"

When schools do not offer pre-engineering programs and summer camps are out the question, the American Society of Engineering Education has a K-12 center for students and teachers that offers free access to activities and projects, resources for further education, and other information on why engineers should have astronaut-status amongst childhood aspirations.

After all, what’s an astronaut without an aerospace engineer, and what’s a firefighter without a fire protection engineer? Regardless of the industry forecasts, it’s hard to deny that engineers are essential to everyday life and will be in demand for many years to come. As evidenced by CSE ‘s 40 Under 40 program, young engineers are making an impact on the world with their creativity and dedication. Meanwhile, more experienced engineers are taking special attention in mentoring newcomers and show them the tricks to stay on top of an ever-changing field. But before these engineers joined the industry ranks, they first needed to know what an engineer was, and why it was worth becoming one.

"There’s a huge amount of ignorance in what people think they know about engineering in contemporary American society," said Tebbano. "The stigma is a dated one, and the answer lies in education, not just of students but teachers, counselors, school leaders, and parents, to make them understand that these are exciting, dynamic careers in creativity and innovation."


View a list of pre-engineering summer camps by state.

Read more in the CSE mentoring series:

  • Blog: Reviving the mentory mentality
  • Ignite opportunities to mentor fire protection engineers
  • Mentoring control engineers and technicians
  • Mentoring HVAC engineers
  • Blog: Mentoring and thinking outside the box