News Stories

National Engineers Week is time to highlight what they contribute to society

Published Feb. 18, 2009

   “The engineer is the key figure in the material progress of the world. It is his engineering that makes a reality of the potential value of science by translating scientific knowledge into tools, resources, energy and labor to bring them into the service of man ... To make contributions of this kind, the engineer requires the imagination to visualize the needs of society and to appreciate what is possible as well as the technological and broad social age understanding to bring his vision to reality.      Sir Eric Ashby

    When it comes to supply and demand for the nation’s workforce, there’s one group that keeps coming up short; engineers.  And if something’s not done soon, the downward trend of young people shying away from the profession could have a dramatic impact.  According to a study by the American College Testing (ACT) Group there has been a drop in the number of high school seniors planning to study engineering, from nine percent in 1992 to six percent in 2002, and a decrease in the percentage of students interested in engineering who had taken college preparatory courses in high school.  In addition, there has been a noticeable drop in the number of female ACT test takers considering engineering careers, and there’s a gap between aspirations of racial/ethnic minority test takers, as indicated by expressed interest in engineering, and their relevant preparation with more than basic coursework. 

   But there is hope.  During Engineers Week, Wilmington District members, including District Commander COL Jeff Ryscavage, volunteered to go into Wilmington area schools to try to get kids interested in math and science, and to explain just who it is that builds and designs roads, find ways to make more fuel efficient cars, or finds ways to make breakthroughs in medical technology.  Virginia Rynk spearheaded the Wilmington District’s efforts to get into the schools.  

   “I enjoy going to the classes during National Engineer Week to talk to the students about engineering, and studying science and math because I think it is important to encourage students that those subjects can be fun and interesting!  I didn't decide to major in engineering until my junior year of college because I didn't know what engineers did.  Once I realized what they did, it was the perfect fit for me.  I have been going to the schools to talk to students for years, and I always am encouraged by the feedback I get from students.” 

 Overall, the District’s volunteers said that their efforts paid off.   

   “The kids who I talked to seemed genuinely interested,” said Major Andy Baker.  “They had some good questions about what we do as engineers.  A lot of the kids didn’t realize the different types of projects that we have in the Wilmington District and throughout the profession.  They thought that engineers only designed cars or just built buildings.  They were interested by the coastal work that we do.”

   Baker said that Engineers Week is an excellent way to be proactive at a grass roots level to expose students to the wonders of math and science.

  “We didn’t have Engineers Week when I was a kid.  Even though I was interested in engineering because I have a lot of scientists and engineers in my family, just a little bit of exposure would have paid big dividends for the kids without that exposure at home.” 

   Ed Dunlop of the Design Section volunteered to speak to students in a math class at Myrtle Grove Middle School.  Part of the strategy of Engineer Week, he said, is to reach kids as young as fifth graders.  He feels it’s more important than ever to try to get kids to realize the importance of taking the hard classes like math and science. 

   “Just like (SAD Commander) Brigadier General Schroedel said during the Town Hall Meeting recently we really have to get kids interested in engineering at an early age.  There aren’t enough engineers out there today as it is, and when the figures keep dropping then we’ll really be in trouble.  I like to speak with the kids because I like to promote my profession.”

   Dr. Greg Williams of Coastal, Hydrolics and Hydrology also spoke to students at Myrtle Grove.  Passionate about his profession, he makes an effort to talks with kids throughout the year, not just during Engineers Week. 

   “It concerns me that there’s a decline of people going into engineering, and the decline of kids taking math and science when they get to the upper grades.  I try to demonstrate how much engineering is a part of our everyday lives in ways that the public doesn’t understand.” 

   Not every kid is destined to be an engineer or has an aptitude for a math or science-based career.  But those who show a genuine interest need extra support to keep them steered in the right direction.  Chief of Engineering Branch Wayne Bissette knew that he wanted to be an engineer by the time he was in the seventh grade.  He feels that community support is vital to ensuring that there will be a steady flow of engineers into the workforce.

    “A lot of people are realizing that we have to get back into the schools to make teachers, students and parents more aware of the importance of a good, solid math and science background.  It’s really the foundation for engineering.”

  Bissette realizes that engineers themselves need to take more of an active part during events like Engineers Week.  The more they can explain to kids what they do as engineers, the better the chance that those kids might choose it as a profession. 

   “They really need to know that traveling on the roads, riding in your car, designing an airplane…all of those are basic engineering designs or functions.  Sometimes you can see some of the light bulbs going off, but it’s not an easy curriculum.  You have to want to do it.”

   Engineering may not be glamorous at times, but it certainly isn’t a boring profession.  Elana Sattin volunteered to speak to a math class at Trask Middle School and explained to students that she finds a lot of satisfaction when working with numbers, something that’s even comforting.

  “I grew up with math and science being fun, and I just want to the kids to experience that.  If they don’t become engineers at least I hope they take an interest in math or science.”

   Perhaps the thing that will draw potential engineers into the profession is good old fashioned American ingenuity.  Chairman of Intel Corporation Craig Barrett, the honorary spokesman for Engineers Week, is banking on that. 

   “We’re a much more competitive society and we’re able to continually innovate; bring new values, new creations, and new things to society.  That’s what engineering is all about.  And that’s what engineers do.  You know, I couldn’t get more excited about engineering as a whole…the problems everyone is talking about today; health care, alternative energy, climate change…these are problems that will be solved with engineering applications.”