Anger & Engineering Outreach

Feb 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This week is National Engineer's Week in the US. Universities across the country are engaging in activities, competitions, build challenges, and outreach activities. GeekDad over at Wired has a great list of engineering links so you can celebrate the week with the young people in your life. I love the outreach aspects of this because I think engineering, but science in general, is often done behind the curtains from the public. And while I wouldn't advocate every single kid grow up to be an engineer they shouldn't be afraid to be an engineer and those who are not should still have some idea of what the profession is.

Today's day in E-Week is Introduce a Girl to Engineering. It's not been too long since we've had our first engineer barbie so we're at that point where it's easy to feel like we're succeeding. Like Luke in fending off TIE fighters we have to be reminded, great kid, now don't get cocky! Over at Engineer Blogs my colleague Fluxor wrote a great post about women in engineering.  And this is where you see the total disconnect of those that get it and those that don't. The comments there were generally supportive but the comments on the article over at reddit are enough to make me sick. Bitter enough I ranted angrily on my own blog. The comments were of the flavor that women engineers are basically taking jobs away from qualified (white?) dudes (they took 'r jooobs!) and doing some piss poor justifications that women aren't as good as men.

But the post on my own blog shows that what they won't say to your face will still come all wrong. And it's frustrating to have to deal with that crap every day. I know so many women in academia, industry, science, engineering, technology- who all have to deal with that daily battle. And even at my youngish age, you just get tired. And thankfully I can come here and write about it and laugh about it and feel like I'm not alone and that not all men are total douchebags (just the ones I work with apparently). But I've also seen my industry serve as a training ground to indoctrinate once decent fellows into the ways of the sexist and racist dinosaurs that run the place. So I'm not convinced a sudden infusion of women or minorities is going to change anything.

Which brings me back to introducing a girl to engineering. Sometimes I feel like the young women I know and care about, there is no way I would want to convince them to go into this field. I would have a hard time being genuine in encouraging them. Or a hard time glossing over all of the tough parts. I mean, don't get me wrong. Most professions have their pitfalls and require a lot of hard work and dedication, at least at some point, that might or might not pay off later. But when a woman has to work 2.5 times as hard as a man to be considered equally capable it's difficult for me to sell the parts of the field that I love. This article from womens enews provides a great rebuttal of a lot of the articles lately that have chimed in with some false research conclusions about how it's all okay now and women having supposedly achieved parity.

But past all the difficulties and drudgeries and long, angry days, I do love engineering. It's going to be less than two hours now until the final Space Shuttle launch at NASA. I hope on this day that girls, and boys, and all of us supposed adults have a chance to watch this memorable day. It's hard for me to think that the space shuttle era is an era at all. That it has to end. That I won't be able to stream live launches anymore of the shuttle that means so much to me. I'm not sure why it's emotional to me, but maybe because the shuttle was to my youth what the Apollo program was to the generation before me. I'd go buy this shirt but I think wearing it will only make me sad.

When you hear the astronauts speak, many of whom are training on future missions that will be using the Russian's Soyuz rocket to get people to the space station, they don't sound sad at all. They know that closing of certain programs is just something that happens in technology and another era will eventually take its place. They know whatever the future of space flight is that there will be a future and that whatever that future is it's worth believing in and worth taking risks for.

And maybe that's how I should look at engineering. It hasn't been easy and sometimes it tries to break my heart but sometimes it gives me gifts and fulfillment I never would have suspected. I know that for me at least the risk is worth it that had I to do it all over again I would do everything exactly the same.

So how about you dear readers, do you ever have trouble trying to encourage young people into your discipline? Do you wonder whether the pitfalls of your particular field were worth it, or maybe worth it only for you? Do you think it'll be better some day, that telling our daughters to go into STEM isn't sending them into an ultimately frustrating place? Do you worry the general attitudes towards STEM fields in general will discourage people or do you think the future will be brighter? Are you as heart broken as I am about the final shuttle launch?

5 responses so far

Marketing vs Exploration

Feb 15 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things I'm passionate about is space flight. I just wrote on Engineer Blogs about how NASA partnered with industry to build a quieter jet engine. I believe both manned and unmanned space flights need to continue because what we gain in knowledge and experience far outweighs the short term costs and risks. The image below is from a flight just last night of the Stardust-NExT. It passed the Tempel 1 Comet at 8:41 PST at a distance of 946.05 trillion kilometers on Valentine's Day for a romantic encounter and a few pictures.

We last flew by the comet in 2005 with the Deep Impact mission. What are the advantages of whizzing by a comet a second time? It certainly doesn't come free.

Total cost of launching and running the Stardust program was $300 million (US). It's actually part of a low cost series of proposals NASA put out to industry to see what kind of cheap unmanned space flight could be built for scientific endeavors. It's built and run by Lockheed Martin. When you consider Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet costs $92 million of the shelf, not including development costs built into the contract and what it actually costs to train pilots, pay ground crew, and support repairs and further operation of the F-35 (of which the US has agreed to buy 2,443 so far) the Stardust looks like a freaking bargain. The F-35, as kick ass as I think it is, can't even go into space.

In the movie Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is asked what he thinks about the possible end of the Apollo program and he asks the reporter, "What if after Christopher Columbus no other explorers had returned to the Americas?" I think the near total annhilation of Native Americans at the hands of European imperialists is probably a terrible metaphor. But I think many people do wonder what the point of going up into space now. We've already been to the moon, we've built a space station, what more is there to do? It's gotten so bad NASA has to sell every single project it does in some neatly packaged PR blitz. Though I think the wallpaper they designed is rather adorable (click to embiggen).

You don't see Lockheed or Northrop having to justify their expenses to the public with a "why are we building this" even when in the short term fighter jets don't seem to be a crucial part of our successful war strategy. And many would argue that neither a large defense program or a space research program are necessities we should be spending tax dollars on. I won't argue on behalf of needing a strong and modern air force today, but I do think having a strong space flight and research program is equally as necessary and yet completely undervalued. It's to the point now where our shuttle astronauts are hardly astronauts anymore as much as they are marketers and spokespeople for manned space flight and for the space station. Shuttle Astronaut Shannon Walker asked "Why should the United States explore space?" in a YouTube video contest. The three winning entries are worth watching and their excitement and attitudes really inspire me and give me hope for a future where space is a cornerstone of who we are and continues to contribute in powerful ways to our science, technology, manufacturing and industry.

2 responses so far