So, Your Kid Doesn’t Want to Be an Engineer?

iStock-1136806587.jpgA July 8 article in the New York Times provides “Advice for Artists Whose Parents Want Them to Be Engineers.” But what if you are the parent, who just wants your kid to make an informed choice? The NAE has useful resources for you.

The NYT article was written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, novelist and professor of English at the University of Southern California. It is a poignant reminder that parents sometimes make great sacrifices to enable their children to follow their dreams—and can make their child feel guilty if those dreams don’t include being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

But what if you are simply a parent who likes the idea of engineering and just wants your child not to reject the idea because of lack of knowledge? What can you tell them?

To begin with, don’t argue that, if they work really hard and can survive math and science boot camp, they’ll be rewarded with a high-paying job (13 of the top 25 highest-paying jobs for new college graduates are related to engineering). That won’t work. Instead, check out the recommendations in the NAE report Changing the Conversation. Tell your child that engineers come up with hands-on solutions that can make a difference in the world and improve people’s lives. Point out to your budding artist that engineering is creative and helps people too.

Is your child, like most Americans, basically clueless about technology and its role in their daily life? Does s/he have no sense of progress? Think new technology appears like magic—with no idea that engineers created that magic? Point him or her to the NAE website of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. From electrification (#1) to high-performance materials (#20), these achievements by engineers have shaped the world as we know it.

And there’s still plenty of room for innovation and improvement in these and other areas. In terms of electricity, for example, today there’s a debate about power from fossil fuels vs. renewables like solar cells and wind turbines—but, so far, no one is suggesting that we address global warming by pulling the plug on electricity. In the developed world, electricity is a staple of life. Engineers created the existing system and, as an engineer, your child could help create the future system—and make it more reliable and affordable globally. The developing world is still struggling to provide stable electricity.

Complimentary information on the 20th century greatest engineering achievements, including perspectives on each by prominent NAE members, is contained in A Century of Innovation, a coffee table book published in 2003. Available on Amazon (for $8.25), it’s a worthy addition to your library to show to your budding artist.

If your child is a girl, introduce her to the NAE’s EngineerGirl! website. This is the world’s preeminent source of information for girls who want to learn about engineering education and work. It provides information about the nature of engineering jobs, profiles of women engineers, and mediated communication so that girls can ask questions about engineering careers. The site design was informed by a committee of young girls to be attractive and informative to them. While your young artist checks out the site’s artwork, she might find herself intrigued by the content and opportunities for engagement.

What about the future? Is there anything left for the future engineer to do? The answer, of course, is yes! There is no shortage of critical problems requiring creative solution by future engineers. Grand challenges for engineering as developed by an NAE committee include “Make solar energy economical,” which may be within reach thanks to technological advances; “Restore and improve urban infrastructure,” very much in the news today; “Secure cyberspace,” a persistent challenge, given recent ransomware attacks; “Provide access to clean water,” a perpetual problem especially in the developing world; and “Engineer better medicines” and “Advance health informatics,” advances that the covid-19 pandemic showed are very much needed. As an engineer, your child could enjoy the thrill of success in helping to solve these and other problems.

These NAE resources may help you and your child get a better understanding of the creativity, excitement, and possibilities of engineering. That knowledge would be useful even if your child doesn’t pursue a career in engineering. Your artist might have a better appreciation of engineering and technology that will enrich his or her life.