The Future of Engineering - Part 2
This article is the second in a two-part series on the future of engineering. Part 1 was discussed last month in The Future of Engineering - Part 1.
I was teaching a training class a few months ago at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and had the good fortune to get a guided tour of the space center by "Rob," one of the attendees in my class. I wrote about this tour in My 50th Anniversary Visit to the Site of John Glenn’s First American Flight Into Space.
Rob is an engineer's engineer who tinkers in his garage on weekends. Rob is a "greybeard" which means he has a lot of experience and is in the final third of his career. Rob has some concerns about the future of engineering which he expressed to me during our after hours tour. He was concerned that today's younger generation does not tinker like his generation did and, in his case, still does. He wondered if this lack of tinkering would mean a next generation of engineering graduates who are more out of touch with the physical world. Taking this one step further, I think Rob was concerned about the future of American technical leadership - in the space industry and in general. His concern is shared by others.
My first response to Rob is that tinkering is not dead in today's world. I told Rob about my oldest son who just finished his third year in Mining Engineering. He is a tinkerer and has long had a fascination with pyrotechnics and explosives. His engineering education has given him yet more technical knowledge - which he has applied to creating his own custom solid rocket fuels for model rockets. This summer he is working in a mine in Colorado getting his hands dirty. Well, he told me he gets dirty everywhere!
A second example is one of the engineers on staff at AFT who graduated relatively recently. He told me when he was in engineering school he built flow experiments and mounted them on the back of his car and drove around to measure what was happening in the flowfield behind a car.
I think there may be more tinkerers around than Rob thinks.
I suppose the larger question is what skills today's younger generation needs in order to contribute to the success of their own and their nation's future. Is hands-on tinkering in the garage as valuable today as it was to Rob's generation a few decades ago?
In Part 1 I talked about my three sons currently pursuing engineering educations. That means I have spent a bit of time in recent years with them touring some top notch prospective universities. All I could say was, wow! The efforts to which these universities have gone to connect their students with the real world through their lab programs is very impressive. Compared to what I had available some 25 years ago, the facilities at my sons' universities are nothing short of amazing. Further, there appears to be a much greater emphasis on getting undergraduates involved in professor-directed research programs which were reserved for graduate students when I was in school.
I think my sons and their generation will have a better real world connection when they graduate than I had. As far as today's young engineering generation goes and the future of American technical leadership, I do not share Rob's concerns. That does not mean that I do not have concerns about the future of American technical leadership.
An essential part of what is learned by those who tinker is failure. Thomas Edison's quest to invent the light bulb involved over 9000 failures. When asked if he felt like a failure and if he should give up, Edison responded with this famous quote, "Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp."
Failure is important. The failures of tinkerers is an essential part of any future successes. To my mind this tolerance for failure applies in the larger scale to societies.
I think a much bigger threat to American technical leadership is the American socio-political environment. The process of "creative destruction" is essential to moving a technology-oriented economy forward. Creative destruction involves accepting failure. Societies that are more focused on job protectionism rather than on allowing some low performing companies or industries to fail will be challenged in moving forward. Along with this is the society's support for new startup companies and industries. These are a significant part of the job creation engine needed for displaced workers to find a place to land.
The American presidential election this Fall will indicate which way America is leaning. And that is a far bigger concern to me than whether today's young generation has enough tinkerers.