In This Issue
Summer Bridge: Engineering Technology Education
July 1, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 2
The vitality of the innovation economy in the United States depends on the availability of a highly educated technical workforce. A key component of this workforce consists of engineers, engineering technicians, and engineering technologists. Much has been written about the role of engineers, their academic preparation, and their value to the nation. This issue of The Bridge sheds light on the relatively underappreciated roles and contributions of engineering technicians and technologists.

An Interview with...Ioannis Miaoulis

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Author: Ioannis Miaoulis

Photo of Ioannis Miaoulis

RON LATANISION (RML): For this column we interview engineers who have affected culture in a number of ways. I can’t think of an institution that represents more of a cultural icon in Boston than the Museum of Science.


RML: That’s why we wanted to talk with you. Is your background in civil or mechanical engineering?

DR. MIAOULIS: Mechanical.

RML: Where did you study?

DR. MIAOULIS: I came to study in the United States. I applied only to Tufts University, early decision, because I wanted a good engineering school in a liberal arts environment. A lot of technical schools have a liberal arts environment now, but back then, in 1980, there were technical schools and very few engineering schools in a liberal arts environment.

On my first day at Tufts, I actually came to the Museum of Science because during the orientation they had a language exam that I didn’t have to take because I already had a second language. So I had a free day. That was my first time at the Museum of Science.

I didn’t know what kind of engineering I was going to study but on my second day at Tufts I met Lloyd Trefethen, who became my undergraduate advisor. He invited me to his lab because I told him I wanted to see what he was doing. He was doing a lot of fluid mechanics surface tension work using a high-speed camera that back then was a special thing.

When I went to his office he had a glass of water and a pipette that he was squeezing and droplets of water were falling into the cup. I didn’t know what surface tension was. He asked me, “Do you know what the shape of a droplet is?” I had seen enough cartoons to say, “It’s like a teardrop.” And he said, “Well, let’s see.” He took the high-speed camera and videotaped it—and of course they were spheres. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ And that’s how I picked my major, mechanical engineering, and fluid mechanics as my specialty.

RML: You spent your academic career at Tufts.

DR. MIAOULIS: I finished my graduate degree there in three years, and I did two big research projects. One was on solar energy—storing heat for solar energy by drying zeolites and other compounds, dehydrating them, and storing the heat by keeping them sealed. Then you add water and get the heat back. It’s a cool way to store heat for an indefinite amount of time. My other project was on turbulent flows using electrostatics.

I went to MIT for my graduate studies in mechanical engineering. Bora Mikic was my advisor. I also got into the School of Architecture because when I was at Tufts I became interested in architecture, but it was impossible to do both degrees at once. So, although I got a scholarship in it, I decided not to do architecture.

I started researching thin films with Bora Mikic. I wrote two papers for the Journal of Applied Physics, and everything was going well. Bora wanted to keep me for a PhD. Then my project advisor at Tufts for my turbulent flows project got a large grant from NSF to build a big experiment to continue my research. He called and said, “Do you want to come back to Tufts?” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse: I had a big laboratory, two or three master’s students working for me, big money for the research project, and I loved Tufts. So I left, much to Bora’s disappointment—he couldn’t believe that somebody left MIT to go back to Tufts.

I did my PhD and a master’s in economics at the same time because when I was at MIT I became interested in entrepreneurship. I finished them in 2½ years, and in 1986 I was ready for a job. But I didn’t know what job to do. I loved Tufts. Bain & Company and Polaroid were trying to recruit me, but I thought it would be cool to be a professor.

I applied to a few places and some good universities were interested, but I really wanted to stay at Tufts. But there was no position open. Suddenly, the heat transfer guy—it was a small department—had a family emergency and had to go back to Iran. So they asked me, “Would you like to stay for a year until he comes back?”

I started teaching and doing research, thinking it was a one-year appointment, although my hope was that he wouldn’t come back. He didn’t, and they had a national search to hire somebody. I ended up being their choice. Later, when I became dean, I opened the drawer and found out I was their fourth choice. [Laughter] But I wasn’t proud, I got the job. I was very happy.

RML: One thing about the wisdom of their decision is that you grew into the job of dean of engineering.

DR. MIAOULIS: Yes, I became dean at age 32. Actually it was kind of awkward because most of the faculty that should have reported to me (as much as faculty report to the dean) used to be my professors. It worked great with most but some didn’t like the fact that now I was going to tell them what they were supposed to be doing.

RML: That was about the time you and I met. It was during the Massachusetts education reform. I was at MIT. There was a lot of university involvement with the State Department of Education as reform went forward here in Massachusetts.

DR. MIAOULIS: Yes. I was living in a small town west of Boston, where I became very involved with the schools, even before I had kids. I was helping with their science curriculum, and I brought some of my colleagues into it. When I had kids it became even more interesting to me, and I started the K–12 Science Outreach Program in the Tufts Engineering School.

So I started as a faculty member in 1987, I started the K–12 activities in school in 1988, and in 1992–93 I became dean. By then, Tufts was one of the most active K–12 outreach places in the country. When I became dean I could set some priorities, and I decided this was going to be an area of importance.

RML: What motivated you to do that?

DR. MIAOULIS: I took a wrong turn. [Laughter] We had bought our first house and I was trying to find a better way to get to Tufts. This was one of the first weeks we were there, and I took a wrong turn and ended up in the parking lot of the town middle school.

Back then, there was this craze with superconductor materials. In my research at Tufts, my students were making thick films of these materials, and we were trying to use zone melting recrystallization to recrystallize them without losing their superconducting properties. We were successful, believe it or not.

These materials were pretty cool: you could keep them in liquid nitrogen and put a magnet on top and it would float in the air. It’s a good way to engage young people.

There in the school driveway I thought, ‘Maybe the kids would be interested in seeing these cool materials.’ I got out of the car and met the principal. I said, “I’m a new professor at Tufts and a new town resident. Would you be interested in me coming and talking to the kids about this stuff?” He brought down the 8th grade science teacher, who said, “Yes, this would be super.”

I spent the week with my students, a nine-member undergraduate research team, developing hands-on activities for the children so they could understand the physics behind the superconductors.

So here I am, doing my show with the kids, the first time ever I was teaching kids at that level, and the first time I was in a coed school because in Greece I went to an all-boys school. As I was doing my stuff, I noticed a girl, with blonde frizzy hair, in front of me. She was taking notes, very intent on everything I said.

At the end of my talk the kids were excited. I could tell it went well. The teacher brought three boys toward me and introduced them. “These are my science boys. You may want to work with them.”

The girl sees the science boys coming, cuts right in front of them, and says, “Dr. Miaoulis”—she pronounced my name—“can you help me with my science project?” Now, I had not signed up to help anybody with their science project, but what do you say to the kid? I said, “What do you want to work on?” She was 13 or 14 years old.

I had brought an example to explain the concept of electrical resistance by referring to drinking a milkshake through a straw. She said, “I want to do a project on how a milkshake travels up a straw,” which is a pretty cool fluid mechanics project. While I was talking with her the teacher came and pulled me aside and whispered, “Don’t waste your time with her. She’s going to be nothing in science. You should work with my science boys.”

Of course I helped her with the science fair project. And of course she won first prize. [Laughter] Not only that, girls never used to win the science fair at this school. In five subsequent years, girls won because they knew “Jenny won the science fair so we can do it too.” So the whole thing changed.

I started getting involved with the school. The laboratories were in miserable condition, as most schools’ laboratories are. I was pretty good at writing grant proposals, and the first ask was to the PTA. I made the case that, instead of bringing the same flamenco dancers for the third year in a row, why don’t you spend the money to get microscopes for the school? They thought it was a good idea, so we got microscopes.

Then we started getting some state grants. We got an Eisenhower grant and some NSF grants. Then I got the Young Presidential Investigator Award, which was amazing money—about half a million dollars that could be matched to do anything I wanted.

I did a lot in education using some of that money, and I got half a million from the Pew Charitable Trust. After five years the school had the most amazing laboratory in the world, state of the art. I brought in $2 million for a school that had 450 kids (back then it was more money than it is now).

I was bringing colleagues to help with the science fair, to do experiments, and that’s how the Tufts K–12 program started—from a wrong turn!

By the way, the girl—because you may be wondering what happened to her—went on and graduated at the top of her class from the regional high school. She got into Haverford College, a great school in Pennsylvania, and majored in biology and history. Then she went to Tanzania, started her own foundation to raise money and design and build science laboratories for children there. About six years ago she handed off the foundation to a local who still runs it, and she came back to the US for her PhD at Stanford. Now she’s a tenure-track professor at the University of Minnesota.

RML: Terrific. That gives a lot of perspective on the evolution of the Museum’s National Center for Technological Literacy.

DR. MIAOULIS: That’s what started it. And what started the engineering part of it was a conversation with Bernie Gordon about potentially funding this K–12 Science Outreach Program. He got very upset and said, basically, if you want kids to learn about the world around them, you should focus on engineering, not the natural world.

That inspired us to open our eyes. I realized the K–12 science curriculum was 98 percent about the natural world, which is actually 2 percent of our experience. The engineered world is 98 percent of our experience but it’s not part of the curriculum. So in 1995 we tried to introduce engineering in the curriculum as a regular discipline for students starting in kindergarten. The same way kids learn about the inquiry process—how a scientist discovers—they should learn about the engineering design process. That was the idea—not to get rid of the natural world education but to have a balanced part of it.

RML: You actually create curriculum now—

DR. MIAOULIS: At the Museum, yes. My goal was to have engineering in American schools by 2015. Don’t ask me how I picked that number. But it was very, very difficult to convince schools to include a new discipline, engineering.

Photo 1

RML: Yes, there would be a natural reluctance because of the already crowded schedules.

DR. MIAOULIS: Exactly, but the schedule is crowded because it includes a lot of junk. We discovered that the US curriculum had been decided in 1893 at Harvard by the Committee of 10—President Eliot1 was in charge of the process—and they left engineering out for two reasons.

First, most engineering back then was farming engineering. The kids were growing up working on farms and learning that stuff at home, so there was no need for a separate engineering discipline. Second, Eliot was totally against anything of a practical nature. He thought that Harvard men should not get their hands dirty with engineering and such things. Actually, he shut down Harvard’s Engineering School. It just reopened in this decade.

So engineering was left out as technology took off. And now we have reached the point where kids have no clue how a car works or a plane flies or a toilet flushes, but they know how many legs a grasshopper has and how to dry leaves between contact papers!

Anyway, we started this in 1995, and in 1998 we got a big break. The Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, David Driscoll, decided to refresh the science standards and he asked me to be on the committee. I thought, ‘This is an opportunity because if we put engineering in the standards and we test it, they have no choice but to teach it.’ It’s not a nice way to do it, but it was the only way to do it. So I told David, “I’m going to put in engineering,” and he said, “If you can convince the committee….”

This process took two years, but on Thursday, December 20, 2000, I made the presentation to the state Board of Education, and Massachusetts became the first state to have engineering in its standards and test it. And that started the whole movement of engineering in schools in the United States and in the world.

Of course, I was naïve. I thought that if Massachusetts did it, other states would do it. It was exactly the opposite. Also, universities compete with each other, so I couldn’t get enough university partners to make it happen.

That’s where the Museum came in. It was looking for a new president around that time, 2001–02, because David Ellis, my predecessor, was retiring.

They wanted to introduce engineering into the Museum as an equal to science, because the Computer Museum had merged with the Science Museum, and a lot of the Computer Museum trustees who were engineers became trustees of the Science Museum. I was recruited to introduce engineering in the Museum.

I quickly realized that this would be a great platform because it could affect the museum world and promote engineering to the general public. And museums are great places to form partnerships with universities. So I made the move in 2003.

The first thing we realized is there was almost no curriculum. There was some high school stuff, but there was nothing at the elementary school level. We thought you should start early in education, so I recruited some superb folks from Tufts that used to work with me, and we hired some new people and started creating curriculum. Now our curriculum has reached over 13.5 million kids.

RML: How many folks are involved?

DR. MIAOULIS: Counting everybody involved in the K–12 Outreach Project here at the Museum, 50. We have the biggest engineering production facility for engineering curriculum for young children in the world—we reach millions and millions of children. Remember, the goal was to introduce engineering into US K–12 schools by 2015, but now we are operating worldwide.

RML: Is the curriculum you generate for sale?

DR. MIAOULIS: Yes, and the proceeds go into developing more curriculum and programs. Let me tell you how we have structured the whole initiative, and then we can focus on the curriculum.

We tried to introduce engineering in our Museum and others. For example, we got the largest grant NSF has ever given to a museum: $43 million to introduce nanotechnology to the general public through a 10-year initiative. We worked with over 200 museums and 300 other partners that introduce technology and engineering components in their programs and curriculum.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Are these all US museums, or elsewhere?

DR. MIAOULIS: Mainly US, but we work with other museums around the world, and universities too.

For the school work, I do a lot of advocacy. It’s not that essential any more because engineering is part of the school curriculum in most states. If you look at the Next Generation Science Standards, engineering is there, and we are partially responsible for that.

Our main focus is always the US, but advocacy is shifting more to the international level. We have two lobbying firms in Washington, DC that work for us, and we have a full-time staff member in DC whose job is to make sure that engineering is in every piece of relevant education legislation and every funding initiative. I testified to Congress and the Senate a number of times for that. We do it at the federal and state level, so, as each state is moving toward changing its curriculum, we try to work with them to introduce engineering.

As for the international level, that’s why I was in Thailand last week, and in Holland before that, and in France and Greece before that. I’m on the road a lot.

So the first thing we do is advocacy. The second thing is curriculum development. Our main product is Engineering Is Elementary. It’s a pretty cool curriculum that my colleague Christine Cunningham and her team have created. It consists of 20 units, each tied to a story that features a fictional child from a different country. There are 11 girls and 9 boys, all colors, some with disabilities—a girl in a wheelchair, a blind child, a child with Down syndrome. Each kid tells a story that is realistic and has something to do with a different field of engineering—materials, transportation, geotechnical, civil—and for each story we consult with people from the country to make sure it’s culturally accurate.

Photo 2

We have a little girl from India who talks about her turtle who is getting sick because of the bad quality of drinking water. Her mom, an environmental engineer, builds a filtration system that saves the turtle.

We also connect the story with a traditional science unit. The turtle story connects with the water cycle. So instead of teaching the water cycle from the dreadful poster that everybody remembers from 3rd grade, you start with a real problem: the turtle is sick. Now the water cycle becomes relevant because you have to figure out how the whole thing works. The teacher goes into the science of it as well as the engineering, and the culminating experience is the engineering design process, which is standard for all the books. Each unit comes with a kit with inexpensive materials to build a filtration system or a bridge or a windmill using the engineering design process.

RML: That’s fantastic. I wonder, when you talk with teachers and they go back to their schools and talk to administrators and say they want to introduce something new into the curriculum, do they ever come back to you and say, “Well, we have to give up something, what would you recommend?”

DR. MIAOULIS: We have designed the curriculum in a way that could replace the old way. So it’s not an addition to the curriculum, it’s a supplementary curriculum that incorporates the science curriculum. Some teachers do one, or two, or three units a year.

RML: I’ve heard many of the arguments—how do you fit something new into the curriculum, there aren’t enough trained teachers—but I think the fundamental issue is that you’ve got to decide what’s important. Once you decide what’s important, you figure out how to do it.

DR. MIAOULIS: Exactly. That’s an engineering approach.

This enriches the curriculum. It’s been funded by NSF, Intel, Cisco, Oracle—it’s probably the most well prepared curriculum ever developed simply because we had the money to develop it and perfect it. It’s so well researched and fine-tuned. Teachers love it.

We’ve found that it’s more effective for kids that come from underprivileged areas than wealthy kids. This is because kids from privileged areas—like my kids, both my daughters are mechanical engineers—have encouragement and guidance at home. So when physics is boring, somebody is telling them, “If you refuse to do your homework, you can’t do this or you can’t do that.” If kids don’t have support at home, they give up science. Our curriculum shows how you can use science by doing engineering and solve real problems. This inspires all kids, and research has shown that it has a larger effect on kids from underprivileged schools.

RML: This serves a number of purposes: It introduces kids to engineering, and it also addresses the issue of technical literacy. In today’s technologically intense world, many people don’t understand, for example, that when they send an email message the chances are that somebody else can read it, even someone they don’t want to read it. People do not have an appreciation of all this and I think it’s important that they do.

DR. MIAOULIS: We are expanding our offerings to cover all aspects of technological literacy in preK–12. We’re just finishing our middle school curriculum. We have a high school curriculum, which many schools in the US and now schools in Thailand started using. And we’re developing a preschool curriculum for very young kids, called Wee Engineer!

We are also creating a modified curriculum with simpler English for English language learners, either in the US or foreign countries. Private schools in Greece, Thailand, and Denmark, for example, are interested in the English curriculum. And we’re starting to develop a K–3 computer science curriculum, for computational literacy.

In addition, we offer professional development. We have trained 135,000 teachers from around the world.

CHF: Do they come here for that training?

DR. MIAOULIS: No, we train the trainers. We have a lot of support on the Internet. For example, every unit has a video on the Internet demonstrating how it works in a real classroom—with real teachers, not actors. This is very useful for teachers, who see how it actually works with kids. And other materials come with it.

With our teacher training, we’ve gone from 100 teachers and 2,000 students to 135,000 teachers and over 13.5 million students in nine years!

CHF: And in addition to these specifically educational endeavors, you’re doing a lot with science communication—I see you’ve got a research communication laboratory and others.

DR. MIAOULIS: Yes. One of the problems we’ve seen, because we work with so many universities, is that there are a lot of brilliant faculty members and students, graduate students primarily, who do very creative work, but they cannot communicate it to the layperson.

We’re very good at that because that’s what we do. We take complex discoveries, especially in our Gordon Current Science and Technology Center, and translate them to be as exciting for an elementary school student as for the person with a PhD. We have programs where we coach primarily graduate students on how they can communicate complex information.

RML: On another point, I know Michael Bloomberg gave the Museum a major contribution a couple months ago. He grew up in Medford and had a very deep affection for the Museum (according to the account in the Boston Globe). What are your thoughts on how that $50 million dollar gift will be used?

DR. MIAOULIS: Let me tell you a bit about why he gave the gift. As a kid, he used to come to the Museum every Saturday. According to him, this is the place that inspired him toward science and engineering. He’s an engineer2 and this is the place that encouraged him to ask questions and gave him confidence. Obviously he is very successful, and he has a love for this place, and he wanted to connect to his parents, who are the ones that encouraged him to come here, which is why his gift is in his parents’ name.

His foundation wanted to make sure the gift would have not only local reach but also national and international. They were very impressed with what we do here—all the programs, especially the engineering programs, and our reach throughout the nation and the world—and wanted to structure the gift to support the Museum’s education mission.

There’s an endowment of $40 million that supports the Museum’s education enterprise, both ongoing and new programs that we develop. And about $10 million goes to support new initiatives such as our Computational Thinking programs and our Future of Food exhibit and program creation.

You know my passion for food and cooking. It seems that everybody’s interested in food these days—there’s something on every TV channel—but there’s no institution that reaches a large number of people that you can go to and learn about food. There are great places like the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu, but you have to take a class. Or at Johnson and Wales University you have to be a student. There’s no informal place.

There is a small food museum in New York in Brooklyn, and there’s a smaller museum of southern cooking in New Orleans. That’s it. There’s a new museum of wine in Bordeaux that is very impressive; I highly recommend it. But there’s nothing on food in general.

I would like the Museum of Science to become a major player, or the major player, in presenting food to the public—the whole spectrum: the science of cooking, technology of cooking, environmental issues of growing food, sustainability, health issues, obesity, malnutrition….

We’re having a charrette now, bringing people from all over the world to advise us on what sort of programs and exhibits we should have. Do you know Andrew Zimmern from “Bizarre Foods” on TV? He’s a cool guy and is going to be one of the people running the charrette. He travels all over the world and brings culture with food.

Another component of the Bloomberg gift is a venture capital fund, an innovation fund, that we will use to build new traveling exhibits that will generate revenue that can then be used to create new traveling exhibits. For example, Pixar was our first computer science exhibit, and it was a huge success. It’s traveling nationally now, and we’re going to use the funds to build Pixar 2, which would travel internationally for computer science. The proceeds will go to create our next traveling exhibit. These are some ways the funds are going to be used. It was a wonderful gift.

CHF: Where do you see yourself and the Museum in 10 years?

DR. MIAOULIS: We have a 10-year plan for the Museum. I’ve mentioned quite a bit of what we’re planning to do, such as the food initiative and computer science. Of course, engineering will always be a main focus.

In 10 years, hopefully we will be a major player internationally—we already are, but even more. We will be totally in the US and will also affect other countries.

CHF: What would that look like?

DR. MIAOULIS: Our curriculum in hundreds of thousands of schools, a strong engineering presence in museums, maker spaces all over the place that focus more on engineering. Everybody would know what engineering is, and the brightest kids would consider it as a career and appreciate it. That’s what I hope to see worldwide in 10 years. It’s starting to happen in the United States; I think we can do more internationally.

Also, as demographics change and what are now minority groups become majority groups, we’ll have to make sure that we transform the things we do here and in other museums, to be engaging and relevant to different ethnic groups. Many of them now don’t go to museums. It’s not necessarily a money issue, it’s a cultural issue, so we’ll have to become more relevant.

CHF: That seems to be part of what you’re accomplishing with the Engineering Is Elementary books.

DR. MIAOULIS: Exactly. The curriculum is international and multicultural.

Also, we do a very good job at engaging girls and young women in the Museum, but one of our goals in 10 years is to do an outstanding job

These are all parts of our 10-year plan. And a significant part of it is to transform the Blue Wing of the Museum. We have excellent exhibits now, but they don’t give a big picture. Our plan is to transform it so that the bottom floor would be Imagining Future and Past Worlds—imagining past worlds with dinosaurs, and imagining food in the future or a journey to Mars.

The main floor would be the engineering floor—anything from maker spaces to the effects of technology in life. And the top floor will be science, discovering our natural world—there will be imagining, creating, and discovering and how they all connect with each other.

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We’ve done a lot on the left side of the Museum. We have the Hall of Human Life, which is probably the most spectacular human biology exhibit in the world. We raised $27 million just to create this exhibit during the middle of the recession. That was not easy, but we did it. And the exhibit is very cool.

RML: I can testify to that. There are some really wonderful exhibits here. My grandchildren love the Butterfly Garden and the Theater of Electricity….

CHF: One last question as we round out our hour: Is there any message you would like to convey to the readers of The Bridge? They include the NAE members, engineering schools and departments all over the country, members of Congress, participants in the NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering symposia, and other interested readers.

DR. MIAOULIS: Well, what’s interesting is that a lot of prominent engineers, including deans of engineering (not a majority, I would say, but some), are skeptical about whether engineering education should be offered to young children. They became good engineers without having engineering in the schools, so “why should we have engineering in K–12?”

My counterargument is that if you are a dean of engineering or a professor of engineering, chances are you’re not the typical person. You found physics amazing, like I did, and your parents or teachers encouraged you, but that’s not what 99.99 percent of people have. You might not have needed engineering in your K–12 years, but most people would.

The other argument is that there are not good teachers of engineering in K–12. Well, how are you going to train them? If there is not a recognized discipline, universities won’t train teachers in this area. It would be good for folks in the Academy and deans and professors to recognize the value of having engineering in K–12.

I use five arguments to convince people to have engineering in schools. First is technological literacy. You cannot claim to be literate if you don’t understand how 98 percent of the human-made things around you work.

Second, engineering is the best discipline to introduce project-based learning and problem solving in the classroom, and it’s the only discipline that truly pulls together everything including arts or economics to solve real problems, it engages kids to work in teams to solve problems they care about.

Relevance is the third one. Math and science, the way they are taught today is not relevant for kids, especially teenagers. Why do teenagers lose interest in science and engineering? It’s simple: When kids hit 12 or 13, the only thing they are interested in is themselves and their friends. This is universal in every country. They are interested only in what’s relevant to them. If you look at science and math and the way we teach it traditionally, it has nothing to do with daily life, especially for children who live in urban environments. If it’s all about trees and volcanoes and things that kids are not familiar with because they live in urban environment, they’re not interested.

Girls, in particular, are interested in things that can offer value to society. Look at the science and engineering areas that girls gravitate to: medicine—half the students in medical school are women; veterinary medicine—85 percent of the students are women. They also gravitate to fields like biomedical and environmental engineering.

The moment you present relevance in the curriculum, the more you get kids hooked. Our curriculum actually has a bigger effect on poor kids than rich kids because it shows the relevance of why they should learn science.

Fourth: careers. Among US engineers 72 percent have had a relative who’s an engineer. That’s the only way you can find out about engineering, because in the US the word is misused to refer to people who drive trains, clean toilets, even janitors. Kids don’t know what engineering is, and they get misleading messages about it.

I was visiting a high school a few years back, a brand new school, and the principal was giving me a tour. Next to the career guidance office was the janitor’s closet with a sign saying “Engineering” on it. If you think that’s funny, at the National Academy of Sciences Building, with Einstein outside, if you go into the basement the janitor’s closet says “Engineering” on it. I gave [former NAE president] Bill Wulf a hard time about it, so maybe it’s changed, because I used to say that in talks nationally. I hope they got rid of this sign.

So where do kids get their messages from? Family, teachers, and TV. And on TV who is the only engineer? There are two now but the main engineer on regular channels is Homer Simpson. Now the guy from “Big Bang Theory” is another. And he is the bottom feeder of the group!

Even NASA is not helpful on this. I served on the NASA Advisory Committee (the NASA Board), and now I’m on the board of directors of CASIS, which manages the International Space Station. At NASA, the most amazing engineering entity in the world, they do unbelievable things. But when the Mars rover made it to Mars, they called it a science miracle. Two years later when something went wrong with it, they called it an engineering error. So how do you expect kids to get inspired about engineering?

Wonder why black kids don’t go into engineering? Traditionally African American families send their kids into education, medicine, and law. Engineering is not a traditional discipline. Where are these kids going to get the hints to go into engineering? They’re going to keep going into medicine, education, and law.

If you want to diversify engineering, you have to introduce it as a new discipline in schools. That’s the fourth reason.

The fifth reason is more esoteric, and I think is cool. This used to be a boy/girl problem in engineering schools. We had it at Tufts too.

We would accept boys and girls from the same school, same SAT scores, same record, sometimes twins. During the first engineering design test, which was to visualize and draw things in three dimensions (back then by hand, now with the computer), the boys typically did better than the girls. We knew it was not genetic because after you’d teach them how to do it, you couldn’t see the difference between boys and girls. So there was something in the preparation, but we had no clue what it could be. They go to the same schools, they have the same scores.

It’s a universal phenomenon, so we found a study on it (I think it was from Michigan Tech). The authors attributed the difference to the toys that boys and girls play with as they grow up.

So I went to Toys “R” Us. It was about 1995–96 because that’s when I read the story. If you go to Toys “R” Us with this in mind, it’s amazing. Erector sets, Legos, K’NEX—these are traditionally boys’ stuff, and they’re all about 3D visualization, problem solving, building. Girls’ toys are Barbie’s New Challenge, Barbie with a Spatula—I’m not making this up—and My Little Pony, a plastic horse with a fuzzy tail and a comb and a button you can push so it says “I’m a princess, are you a princess?” Go look at these toys!

How do you expect a girl who has been combing the tail of a pony for 14 years to have the same 3D visualization skills as a boy who has been building things?

Now it’s becoming a problem for both boys and girls because what do kids do in their free time?

CHF: Computers and video games.

DR. MIAOULIS: Right. So we’re creating new generations of humans with no 3D visualization skills.

These are the five reasons. And this is something that the Academy could be championing.

RML: The Academy is very concerned about women in engineering and has initiatives with the goal of increasing the numbers of girls and women in engineering.

But I would add another element to the five you’ve identified: education, which has always been the way young people are integrated into the culture.

When we look at the technological intensity of the world today, it’s all derived from engineering. Understanding nature is important, of course, but it’s when you start building engineering systems that you attach value. We know that kids value things like computers—they can play with them all day—but they don’t understand them.

The culture of the country is increasingly technological but people do not understand the technology. What you are doing is trying to introduce understanding, and I think that’s a very important thing for a museum to do and for educational institutions and the Academy to do.

I also think we need to build bridges between museums and others that serve the same purpose. I consider this very important.

DR. MIAOULIS: We see the Museum as more of an educational institution now because we do a lot more than a museum does. And in two or three years, 30 percent of what we do is going to be more outside of the Museum.

Also, we would like to be more connected with the Academy. I know there is more we could do together.

RML: I want to thank you for meeting with us.

CHF: It’s been a pleasure.

DR. MIAOULIS: Yes, very nice to talk with you. Thank you. I enjoyed it.


1 Charles William Eliot was president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909.

2 Bloomberg got his BS degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

About the Author:Ioannis Miaoulis, Director, Museum of Science, Boston. Photo credit: Michael Malyszko.