Designing next-generation engineers

Enhanced emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in U.S. public schools continues to grow, with federal investment in STEM education totaling more than $3 billion annually for primary and secondary schools, according to the National Science and Technology Council. But even with schools’ boosted interest in engineering and math, students often find themselves at a loss as they think about college and careers. Interaction with real-world engineers in actual work situations—especially in the students’ local areas—may help as they make crucial decisions about their college years and beyond.

I have a vested interest in this issue, as my 16-year-old son is one of these students. So I jumped at the opportunity to expose his mind to real and their work in the space electronics industry. Although neither of us expected our first instruction that day to be “Here, clip on this dosimeter.” Not a phrase commonly heard when visiting a workplace, this one meaning: “Please attach this radiation detector to your body.”

But hey, my son and I are tech geeks and what could be more cool than encountering gamma rays. My son is at the beginning of his what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life journey. I’ve resolved not to interfere as he considers colleges, fields of study, and potential careers, but I’m also going to help him out in any way I can as he searches. He’s interested and talented in both math and science—chemistry and physics, plus anything to do with space.

So, we gamely clipped on the and greeted our hosts, engineers at a local technology company called VPT Rad in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and began our tour. This facility handles the radiation and related test needs of high-reliability electronics manufacturers. The executive director and company founder of , Aridio Sanchez, showed us the testing labs and areas.

Aridio, his colleague Victor Brisan, and my son talked about the use of electronics in orbit and in deep space, how equipment used in space needs to be certified as high-reliability before sending it on a mission, and what fields older two had studied in college. Their 30-minute talk showed my son more about the practical applications of his studies than any magazine article or textbook entry. The wearing of the dosimeters just made it cooler — a story he could tell his friends in class the following day. The three also discussed what might be coming up in the field in the next 10 years or so.

These next ten years will be important for getting young American minds into engineering fields. According to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although the job growth outlook for engineers over the period 2014-2024 is expected to be lower than the outlook for the labor market as a whole, the rapid pace of technological innovation and development will likely drive demand for electrical and electronics engineers in research and development, an area in which engineering expertise will be needed to develop distribution systems related to new technologies. The report states that engineers in these areas will play key roles in new developments having to do with semiconductors, solar arrays, and communications technologies.

The “2014 Older Worker Survey” performed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that more than two-thirds of the HR professionals surveyed said that they consider the loss of their older workers (classified as age 50 or older) over the next six to ten years a “problem” or “potential problem.”

Of course, any worries about workforce replacement seem to be balanced out by the nationwide focus on and curriculum. Even my daughter’s seventh-grade observes “STEM Fridays” every other week, during which the teacher and the class perform a math-related project or experiment. Moreover, anecdotal evidence tells us that students are constantly immersed in technology and connected with .

The logical jump from school projects to college major to real-world application is a bit harder to bridge, however: Letting these students know how they can use these skills in the workplace of five, ten, 20, and 30 years from now; discussing college courses of study beyond the generic “engineering major”; clueing kids into what they may not know about electronics engineering or design. Here in Massachusetts, talented students have their pick of some of the best engineering colleges and universities in the country, but there’s so much that even the smartest kids don’t know about applying their knowledge to the workplace.

This is where you all come in. When you gather for holiday get-togethers and Super Bowl parties, talk to your children, your nieces and nephews, your neighbors, and the kid who mows your lawn. Ask them — really talk to them beyond “How’s school?” — what they’re interested in. If they talk at all about engineering or electronics, take ten minutes and get a little deeper into it. If they love math and science, ask what specific field they’d like to get into and whether they know what’s out there in the real world. Don’t worry about bugging them—human beings love to talk about themselves and what’s interesting to them. It doesn’t need to be a lecture: just a few minutes might give an aspiring scientist or engineer enough information to look in some new directions.

The takeaway—the actual quote—from my son on our VPT Rad visit with some real engineers: “Wow, there is some SERIOUS science going on in our town. I had no idea.” My impression: The electronics-engineering world and the world at large benefits from sharing information about the field and filling the pipeline with up-and-coming scientists and engineers. Just ask around—they could be anywhere.