Don’t overlook engineering fields

By May 24, 2011

Friday’s Explorit Science Center column about earthquakes refers to “mysteries of science” in describing experiments to shake up models of buildings, then goes on to discuss geologists (Enterprise, May 20, Page A4). There is no mention of earthquake engineering, the field of endeavor that keeps buildings from falling down.

This minor omission is just one example of a greater mystery. Why do young scholars rarely hear about engineering? Part of the answer is that “science” is used as a catch-all term, particularly in K-12 education. Students and parents might erroneously infer that engineering is somehow a subset of science or a byproduct of scientific discoveries.

The two activities are related, they overlap, and they need each other, but they are distinct. Young people should have the benefit of knowing the difference, long before it is time for career choices.

Educators, parents and volunteers could be more helpful to the next generation by explaining that science is primarily about being curious to understand the natural world, while engineering is ultimately about creating things and making them work. Both fields benefit from mathematical minds, an interest in exploring the unknown, and a desire to do what has never been done before.

Misunderstandings persist even in higher education, partly because universities are major participants in mainstream science, with results publicized. Conversely, mainstream engineering is done in companies that “make things work” in a competitive business environment, inherently less public.

While contemplating futures, students and parents should realize that our education system doesn’t equally emphasize all that is valuable. A scholastic interest in the subject of “science” can indicate potential for a future in science, engineering or other fields, e.g. health care.

It is relatively less common, although certainly possible, for an individual to combine more than one of these into a career.

John Whitehead


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