Earlier in October I was in Houston to attend the annual Hispanic Engineer's National Achievement Award Conference (HENAAC). HENAAC key mission is promoting science, technology, engineering and math careers in underrepresented communities, especially the US Hispanic community. It has been doing so for twenty years now.
The highlight of the annual HENAAC conference is the award show that recognizes the achievement of Hispanic engineers and scientists in a number of categories. The top honorees this year were Ellen Ochoa - deputy director for NASA's Johnson Space Center and former astronaut - who was named the 2008 Hispanic Engineer of the Year, and Dan Arvizu - Director of DOE's National Energy Renewable Lab - who was inducted into the HENAAC Hall of Fame. I was honored by HENAAC in 2001, when I was named Hispanic Engineer of the Year, and in 2004, when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The conference included a variety of meetings and seminars, as well as a number of programs aimed at students, including a career fair. Among the meetings was a panel - for which I acted as moderator, - of past Engineers of the Year and Hall of Fame inductees to explore innovative solutions to the number one issue HENAAC deals with: how do we convince Hispanic kids and their families that the pursuit of engineering and science careers is one of the best paths to a well paying, highly stimulating job?
This is clearly a major challenge not only for the Hispanic community, but for our nation as a whole. On the flight down to Houston, I read a very interesting article in the October 10 edition of the New York Times about a study - "Cross cultural analysis of students with exceptional talent in mathematical problem solving" - just published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. While the study focuses on math skills, just about all its findings and conclusions are equally applicable to technical skills in general.
The study examines why the US is failing to develop the math skills of girls and boys, even among those who would excel at the highest levels, the only exceptions being immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where math is more highly valued. The Times article reports that "while many girls have exceptional talent in math - the talent to become top math researchers, scientists and engineers - they are rarely identified in the United States. A major reason, according to the study, is that American culture does not highly value talent in math, and so discourages girls - and boys, for that matter - from excelling in the field."
The article goes on to quote the study’s lead author, Janet E. Mertz, an oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin: "We’re living in a culture that is telling girls you can’t do math - that’s telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math. Kids in high school, where social interactions are really important, think, ‘If I’m not an Asian or a nerd, I’d better not be on the math team.’ Kids are self selecting. For social reasons they’re not even trying."
It later writes about Zuming Feng, "who grew up in China and teaches math at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Dr. Feng says that in China math is regarded as an essential skill that everyone should try to develop at some level. Parents in China, he said, view math as parents in the United States do baseball, hockey and soccer. 'Here everybody plays baseball,' Dr. Feng said. 'Everybody throws a few balls, regardless of whether you’re good at it, or not. If you don’t play well, it’s O.K. Everybody gives you a few claps. But people don’t treat math that way.'"
If we are having a tough time convincing kids with high skills and proven talents to study math and science and aspire to technical careers, imagine the incredibly uphill battle we face in trying to convince kids from poorer families, who are typically not getting anywhere near the same education.
We tried to understand these issues at the various HENAAC panels. In one session, the panel members were asked to share with the audience what made them go into science and engineering in the first place. I said that ever since I was a little boy back in Havana, I knew I was going to end up as a scientist or engineer. That's what my parents kept somehow instilling in me. They wanted me to have the best possible education and end up in a prestigious job, which is what being a scientist or engineer meant to them. All the other panel members recounted similar experiences of being both pushed and encouraged by their parents.
We also all talked about the scholarships and fellowships that enabled us to attend college and graduate school even though our families did not have the means to pay for our education. In my case, scholarships made it possible for me to attend the University of Chicago. Fellowships and assistantships made it possible for me to go on to graduate school and get a doctorate in physics. In those post-Sputnik days, the federal government was strongly encouraging young people to become scientists and engineers, backing up its encouragement with plenty of financial support.
After some very spirited discussions, the panel reached two major conclusions.
The first conclusion was that most kids and their families have no idea what an engineer actually does or whether you can make a good living at it. They associate technical careers with tough math and science courses, full of equations, formulas and labs. We tell them that to aspire to a technical career, they have to take these courses, study hard and do well, but we have not adequately explained the reward for doing so. Kids understand that achievements require hard work. They know that to aspire to an Olympics medal or a professional sports career you have to spend a lot of time training, and that not all that training is fun. But, it is all worth it because of the glory, fame and money that awaits you once you make it.
How about those science and engineering careers we talk to them about? Is there glory, fame and money at the end of that rainbow? Our panelists said that most kids they talk to believe that a technical career pretty much relegates you to a life of solitude, of sitting quietly in a corner, out of touch with people and reality, continuing to perform those calculations and lab experiments you did not like so much back in high school. No wonder so many want no part of such a nerdy existence. Neither would most of us.
Our messages are clearly not getting through. Those of us in the field view a technical education as the best possible preparation for the kind of systems thinking that you need to be able to tackle and solve complex problems in a variety of exciting and important areas - energy and the environment, health care, global supply chain, financial services, media and entertainment, and so on.
As business, economies and society in general are becoming increasingly global, complex and unpredictable, these problem solving skills will be more important and in higher demand than ever. The kids and their families need to understand that a major reason for the income inequalities of the last thirty years has been the demand for - and corresponding higher wages - for individuals with high problem solving skills, the kinds of skills you get through a solid technical education.
Our second major conclusions is that if we want to encourage young people to go into technical fields, we need to back up the encouragement with financial support - as was the case for so many of us in the 1960s. We need all levels of government involved, - local, state and national, - because the challenges are now so broad. We need innovative charter and magnet schools to provide the proper K-12 education tor talented kids that cannot get it in their local public schools. We need good state and community colleges so these kids do not lack for higher education opportunities. And finally, we need the federal government to fund the required research programs and advanced education that keep them going into the future.
These should be among our most important priorities for the 21st century. They are closely linked with some of our most critical challenges, from leadership in the fierce, global economic competition out there, to creating new jobs and improving our standard of living at home. These are the kinds of challenges the country has stepped up to time and time again. As our panel concluded, we all have to roll up our sleeves and get going once more.