Planting seeds

This week, something that John Cohn IBM Fellow urges engineers to promote the profession said really resounded with me: “What's an engineer? A scientist with a job.” Wow, how I wish I had heard those words some 20 years earlier – it might have planted a valuable seed.

Like many youngsters around the age of 14 or so, I was encouraged to envisage a 'career choice'. At the time, I hadn't the faintest clue and felt hugely under pressure to suggest something – anything. Looking back, it is hardly surprising it was a matter of such inward debate – not only did I have little real understanding of the options open to me, but I was labouring under some serious, yet commonly-held misconceptions.

Despite a lively interest in science, becoming a scientist to me at that time meant wearing a lab coat and peering through a microscope all day. Although I had learnt about physics, chemistry and biology, they had been taught fairly independently and I didn't seem to have gleaned an understanding of how they could be applied.

Thinking more specifically about engineering, somewhere along the line I now know that my understanding of what engineering was about got a bit mixed up. My awareness spanned two categories: civil engineering – which is what my Dad did – designing bridges and motorways; and mechanical engineering. The latter conjured the classical image of nuts and bolts, dirt and grease, though despite all that, quite appealed to me. When I moved school and gleefully picked 'Car mechanics' at GCSE (the sole engineering-oriented topic available), I was dissuaded by a teacher who deemed that it 'wouldn't suit me.' At that time, electrical engineering hadn't even entered the picture and by the time it did, it would have seemed too late to consider it a career possibility.

As it happens, I think I would have made a poor engineer! I divulged to someone the other day that whilst I used to quite enjoy taking things apart, I wasn't exactly a natural at putting them back together again. However, I can't help thinking what might have been had my peers and I slightly more awareness of the breadth of options available to those with more than a passing interest in maths and science.

The question of how to prepare kids to make realistic and informed decisions about which career path to take has bugged me ever since. I was lucky that as a child of the 70s, the gender issues that might have dissuaded girls from pursuing science and engineering in the decades before, didn't altogether hamper me. However, I can now see that various misunderstandings and misconceptions did creep in, about which I do wish someone had taken time to challenge me.

With a global shortage of scientists and engineers, as an industry, there is a job to do in building awareness of the role they play in society. And with youngsters being forced to think about a career so early on, there's a need to get in quick … seeds of an idea take time to flourish.

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