Analog Angle Article

Have our engineering advances discouraged the kids?

We hear and read about the lack of engineering interest among students of all ages, potentially leading to an engineering shortage for the U.S. economy, and our profession overall, in the near future. We also hear many possible reasons for this problem and impending shortage, ranging from their long-term career misgivings to students' laziness.

I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the purported engineering shortage, although I am quite skeptical. I do know that fewer and fewer young adults are interested in electronic engineering. In addition to all the proposed reasons I hear for this presumed lack of interest, I think there is another reason which we don't want to admit.

It was nicely articulated in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Hip to be Square: Why Young Buyers Covet 'Grandpa' Cars,” May 9, 2006. The article explained that many younger car enthusiasts are buying up the cars of 1970s and 1980s, not only because they're retro and thus cool, but because “the cars are easier to work on than newer, more computerized versions” and “I can work on it myself.”

Now think abut today's typical electronics circuit board: large, SMT ICs that can only be placed by machine and soldered by reflow, ICs that in general can't be removed or replaced, passives the size of grains of salt, impossible to just probe around, impossible to modify by, say, tacking on another resistor or capacitor. In other words, what you see is what you have. For hobbyists and potential engineers, the only access they can have is via software and some I/O port. Not quite the same thing, is it?

In other words, our astonishing and rapid progress from through-hole components and DIP ICs to our present many-layered circuit-board structure pretty much rules out any hands-on soldering, trying, poking, probing, or modifying. And that's a problem if the student is a hands-on type of person.

Rather than just point out the problem, I do have a partial solution. Take a look at a good hobbyist publication such as QST , from the Amateur Radio Relay League (a ham-radio organization). Their build-it article “A Lighting Detector for the Shack,” April 2002, is exactly the kind of project that a budding engineer should tackle. The battery-powered circuit has four discrete transistors, about a dozen resistors, capacitors, and inductors, and a small bulb. None of the components nor the layout are critical (you can even use a perforated board and wire it directly, component lead-to-lead), the parts are available at Radio Shack, Digi-key, and other sources. The final circuit is very probe-friendly and testable.

And that's the way to satisfy those engineering interests!

Bill Schweber , Site Editor, Planet Analog

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