Reflecting on National Engineering Week

photo-LarryBockBy Larry Bock 

Co-Founder of USA Science Science & Engineering Festival 

Engineers are some of the most necessary problem solvers on the planet. They conquer the daunting technological challenges -- both immediate and long-range -- that stand in the way of human progress and quality of life. You don't have to think long and hard to realize what our daily existence would be like without these innovators. Their imprint is everywhere - ranging from the water we drink, the cars we drive (and the roads and bridges on which we travel) to our iPhones and computers, and the programs that run them.

To put it succinctly, engineers are awesome, and our nation needs more of them to tackle the spate of technological crucibles coming our way this century -- everything from energy and sustainability to improving healthcare delivery.

But first, there is a problem that we in industry and education must solve ourselves -- and it is one worth exploring during National Engineering Week, Feb. 16-22.  As America experiences a downturn in the rate of students entering engineering, how can we develop new and creative ways to attract the number, caliber and diversity of individuals that we desperately need for this field?

Perhaps insight from a major report issued in 2009 by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council's Center for Education might put us on the right track. In their study, titled Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects, the authors advise K-12 schools to begin to put the "E" back into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum. The report found that many schools de-emphasize (or do not include) engineering principles in classroom instruction, choosing instead to focus mainly on science, math and technology.

The NAE study suggests that engaging young learners regularly in hands-on problem solving in engineering design not only excites and motivates kids about engineering, but also enhances their performance in math, science and technology.

And that's not all. Research shows that the "wow" factor in engineering among many students increases exponentially when problem-solving is integrated with interactive, team-oriented activities with inspiring role models in the field.

As the latter suggests, schools cannot do it alone, which is why outreach partnerships in STEM with K-12 schools between industry, government, research universities and other entities have also proven effective. For example, Lockheed Martin, through a corporate initiative called Engineers in the Classroom, enables its engineers to interact with next-generation innovators by serving as local school advisors, extracurricular activity mentors and career role models for students.

Another, and perhaps more immediate, way to excite kids about the importance and wonder of engineering is by supporting the major science events that take place regularly in local communities and around the country. One such national gathering, the USA Science and Engineering Festival, touted as the country's largest celebration of science and engineering, kicks off this April.

Through participation from a wide array of institutions representing education, government, professional organizations and industry, the Festival and its finale Expo that will take place in Washington, D.C., April 25-27, 2014, are set to engage kids and the public in more than 3,000 interactive activities with leading engineers, scientists and inventors -- all to help enhance students' natural inclination to learn, discover, tinker and build.

This event, with its cadre of high-profile sponsors including engineering leaders such as Lockheed Martin (the Festival's founding and presenting host), Qualcomm, Northrop Grumman, Chevron, the U.S. Department of Energy, MIT and Georgia Tech - is a perfect example of how we can come together to inspire the next generation of innovators.

It is clear we all have a part to play.

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