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Show engineering some love

Posted: 17 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:engineering? Cohn John fellow? EE?

I never studied engineering in school, much less practiced it in the field. As I look back upon it now, it seems to me that I was not fully cognizant of the profession during my formative years.

I grew up within a stone's throw of the Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world. I liked to tinker with the innards of electronic devices. I dug computers from the time I was eight years old, when my father brought home a Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer. Yet, as far as I remember, nobody ever suggested I explore electronics engineering. To the extent that I was aware of engineering at all back then, what I thought I knew about it did not appeal to me.

Cohn: Engineering is not boring.

Things might have been different if I'd heard John Cohn speak 20 years ago, as opposed to earlier this week. In a roughly hour-long presentation delivered at the International Solid State Circuit Conference (Feb. 9), Cohn, an IBM Fellow, delivered a message that was at once resonating and simple: kids are not interested in studying engineering and people who love it need to do something about that.

He also delivered a secondary messageone that he backed up with unbridled enthusiasm as he spoke and performed samples of the experiments he does in his outreach efforts to students"Engineering is not boring." This wasn't news to any of the hundreds of engineers in the audience, but we can all use an occasional reminder, even of the most basic things.

Dip in enrollees

Cohn worries that engineering enrollment has been in decline worldwide for the past two decades. He worries because he loves engineeringhe said in all sincerity that he would do it without pay and also because the world needs bright minds going into engineering to help solve the challenges facing humanity now and in the future. Apart from the declining enrollment, Cohn fears that the profession's inability to attract enough women and ethnic diversity are working against it.

On the bright side, Cohn believes that worldwide concern over climate change could act as a "new Sputnik," galvanizing a generation of young people to pursue engineering out of determination to be part of the solution to the challenges associated with global warming.

But only if awareness of the field of engineering among students increases, and perceptions about it are changed. As Cohn pointed out, there exists a huge disconnect between the public's perception of engineering and the work that most engineers do. He quoted survey results indicating that individuals generally don't associate engineering with "social values" such as caring about the community or saving lives.

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