By Thomas A. Fanning, Chairman, President and CEO, Southern Company
and Gary S. May, Dean, Georgia Tech College of Engineering
Call it the battle of the studies.
On one side, studies by some economists show that our nation has more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers than it needs. They contend that STEM workers often have difficulty finding employment.
On the other side, studies by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and think tanks such as the U.S. Council on Competitiveness trace a decline in U.S. competitiveness to insufficient production of engineers and scientists. High-tech employers such as Southern Company consistently say that they can’t hire enough qualified engineers.
As with many such battles, a more important point seems to be getting lost – namely, that engineering education has value that transcends supply and demand for engineers.
Engineering is foundational. While the discipline is vast and diverse, it is held together by the unifying concept of effective problem solving. Engineers learn to examine problems from a variety of vantage points. They are inventive and precise. Imagination and logic work in counterbalance: Engineers understand what is and see what might be.
These qualities explain how we’ve been able to carve through a continent to build the Panama Canal, cross the planet in hours via commercial jets, drive economic growth by delivering an affordable and reliable supply of electricity and connect the world through the Internet. Simply put, our nation should make every effort to graduate more of these students, because the skill sets developed in engineering serve only to benefit humankind.
These attributes also suggest why engineers don’t always stay in engineering. Vision, strategy and team-building are hallmarks of leadership, which might explain why a third of the CEOs on the Standards & Poor Index have engineering degrees. They’re hardly the exception: U.S. Census data show that only a third of engineering majors end up in engineering positions. A quarter end up in management in non-STEM fields, and another 10 percent are employed in business and sales positions.
David Carlton is an engineer who ended up in medicine. The chemical engineering major from Georgia Tech now heads one of the largest neonatal intensive care operations in America, a cooperative involving Emory University, Grady Health Care and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Engineering is an education that prepares you to do anything you want,” Dr. Carton says. “Engineering is more versatile than many people appreciate. There are so many fields that benefit from the engineering mindset.”
He’s right. And the need for the inherent problem-solving capacity of scientists and engineers has never been greater. Consider NAE’s “Grand Challenges of Engineering,” perhaps the most ambitious to-do list ever compiled. Its purpose is to address the issues that impede improvement of the quality of human life – engineering better medicines, preventing nuclear terror, and making solar energy economical, to name a few. These are the challenges that must be conquered to prepare our world for a better tomorrow.
Who will take up these challenges? We must start with American schools. There has been no shortage of ideas and policy proposals to strengthen STEM education, but two areas proposed by the National Science Board in 2010 merit special attention. In their report “Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators,” the NSB emphasized the importance of focusing on two groups of students for STEM development.
Children of lower-income backgrounds — often underrepresented minorities — comprise the first group. Citing earlier research from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the NSB states that high-achieving students from lower-income families lose ground academically as they progress through school. These are students who fall out of the top quartile in elementary and high school while their wealthier classmates remain. It is a real waste of talent when we allow bright, capable students to lose their way simply because their families lack means.
Ironically, the second group is made up of the most motivated and talented students in our schools. While a strong case can be made to keep STEM a priority across education, giving special attention to gifted students is also a strategy worth pursuing. Three-fourths of schoolteachers say that too often, their brightest students are bored or under-challenged. We need innovative active learning techniques to stop the marginalization of the best in class of our education system.
Taking action to ignite the intellectual curiosity of these two groups will fill the pipeline of future scientists and engineers, as well as bring greater diversity to these disciplines. Regardless of where these people ultimately end up in their careers, they will contribute to the nation’s economic growth and prosperity. We simply cannot afford to neglect these valuable human resources. We do so at our peril.