Lately my pals in our SME chapter have been talking about education, scholarships and what we could do to bridge the gap between the workplace and the school. In fact, Natalie Lowell has pulled together a team of sponsors, members, educators and students for a Careers in Technology event in Grand Rapids in September. The 400 spots for students to participate filled up fast.
This started me thinking about why people become engineers or technicians. Education is about the joy of learning, and people becoming able to accomplish difficult things. It’s about seeing people at work who really know what they’re doing, and knowing that you helped make that happen.
But, dear readers, a lot of you got hooked on things technical at some magic moment in your life. When did you first feel that you’d found something cool and thought, “I want to do that.” It might have been seeing a brand new part come out of a machine, discovering the elegance of math or science, the beauty of design. It might have been building something in the garage or in shop class, fixing your bike or car, or solving a problem with your computer. Who was with you? Where were you? How old were you? How were you inspired to pursue your education or career?
Or think about a time when you influenced a student, your son or daughter, a boy scout or girl scout, to get excited about math, science, engineering or manufacturing, how things are made, or what engineers do. Was this a kid who just needed a bit of direction? Was it a kid struggling to understand a concept in math, science or technology, and you were able to help him or her understand it? Were you able to find a student an internship that really turned him or her on? How did you inspire that young person? What did you say, or show them? What did you feel at that moment?
Natalie told me about taking shop class in school as an elective. She stood in front of a wood lathe, tool in hand, ready to start turning a bowl. She felt a little scared. But she went to work, and when she finished that bowl she was hooked on machines. It was completely unlike what she felt about sewing a shirt in home ec.
My husband Mike got his ticket out of the warehouse to the computer room by convincing the hiring manager that he liked solving problems. Our house had been invaded by a mouse, and rather than going to a hardware store for a trap, he decided that he’d cobble together a live trap himself. I think he used a cardboard box, a tined object that might have been an angel food cake cutter and the spring mechanism from an ordinary mousetrap. Night after night, the mouse beat the closing of the cage, but Mike kept adjusting his mechanism. Finally the mouse was caught. Sadly, he was killed by the door closing on his spine.
As for a student’s joy, I felt it once when my son was about 16. He was helping a friend fix his car sound system, and loped through the living room where I was reading, on his way to the driveway from the basement. He didn’t stop, just said, “I love fixing things!” as he breezed through.
In the midst of this inquiry, I picked up the June 25, 2007 issue of the New Yorker and found myself reading about Cecil Belmond, a structural engineer and trustee of Arup, an international engineering firm based in London. After his family moved to Nigeria from Sri Lanka, he enrolled in the university. “I learned a lot about three-dimensional thinking in Nigeria,” he told David Owen. “I had a Senegalese maths professor who put pictures in my head that I hadn’t had before. It was just stunning. Something was triggered, and I felt a new spatial awareness.”
I’m not a good example. My dad tried to be Mr. Wizard to my sisters and me and I was always profoundly uninterested in why the moon lights up or why the sky is blue. Even making nylon spin itself out of a beaker of stuff failed to impress me. Sorry. Much later, he advised me not to become an engineer – not because he’d figured out that I didn’t care much, but because, “Nobody likes a lady chemist.”
I did have a glimmering once. I was working for the summer for a family friend who owned a machine shop. I was so bored after I finished up the small amount of office work there was, and asked if I could work in the shop. That was back when a person had to turn the cranks on the lathe. One product he produced was a stainless steel die that had soft-drink logos engraved in high relief. The dies were mounted in a wheel, heated, and used to brand the logos in the cork inside the bottle caps. It was finicky work to cut the metal away from the design with a pantograph engraver. I had to do both plunge cuts and cuts that entered from the edge of the piece. Just a tiny bit too much force or speed and the engraving tool would break, and they got dull pretty fast.
Eventually I might find myself sitting and waiting for a machinist to come and sharpen my cutting tools for me. Then came the day when my boss concluded he might as well just show me how to do the sharpening on the grinding wheel that was in the same room as the engraver. I was intrigued to learn that the tool actually had a spiral shape to it, and the tip was cut off at just the right angle. When I actually got my first tool sharpened right, I felt pretty good. Not good enough to make manufacturing a career.
Still, in more than 20 years working with people in manufacturing, publishing things they could use to do their work better, I’ve never gotten tired of hearing their stories. So, what’s yours?