Closing the Door on Potential Engineers

A friend who is an engineer writes that fewer American students are going into engineering. She wondered if it’s because they think they’re not smart enough or nerdy enough or male enough, or are afraid that in other ways don’t fit the engineering “mold.” I’m pretty sure it’s not the only reason. If kids don’t want to be engineers, it may be because high schools and colleges make most of them feel that they are not welcome in the field, even the students who have the aptitude for it. It also seems that the average student has little opportunity to be exposed to what an engineering career entails.

Schools need to do more to make engineering classes available to more students. At my son’s high school, the STEM program offers engineering-related courses. But students in STEM have such strict requirements that there is no room for other electives. My son is a serious musician and was thinking of double-majoring in Music and Engineering. As a 9th-grade STEM student, the only way to keep Orchestra in his schedule was to skip gym, which was a required course, and take it in summer school instead. The next year, he left the STEM program; he still couldn’t fit in the other classes he wanted, and there didn’t seem to be another solution. But not being in STEM meant he didn’t have access to many of the school’s engineering-related courses.

For senior year he tried to sign up for a Dual Enrollment community-college course in engineering. It sounded perfect for him. He was accepted, but then the community college changed the rules. Dual Enrollment students in this engineering class now had to be taking AP English as well. I understand and laud the push for engineers to have communication skills. But he was taking Honors English, and he had 750 English SATs (and 800 Math SATs). Shouldn’t that have been enough to prove he had communication skills? He wasn’t interested enough in English to want to take AP English. So that was that. He couldn’t take the Engineering class.

Most of the colleges he considered have separate Engineering schools, with little opportunity for non-Engineering majors to take Engineering classes, or for Engineering majors to take classes outside of Engineering. (The only exception was a private school that costs more than $70,000 a year.) So my son gave up on engineering. The gate-keeping is just too rigid. And the profession lost a potential recruit who had perfect Math SATs and who aced AP Physics and AP Calculus BC. He still could go to grad school for engineering if he wants to someday, but with so little exposure to courses in the field, he’ll have little reason to be interested.

Why do schools provide so little opportunity to learn about engineering for students who haven’t already decided by age 14 that they want to be engineers and nothing else? It doesn’t make sense. It’s not just engineering. Graduation requirements, and most college admissions requirements, are so extensive and so strict that they allow little chance for students to take classes just because they want to know more about the subject. My son went to a large high school with a huge array of classes available — but like most of his friends, was able to fit only a narrow list of electives into his schedule.

He is now a college freshman majoring in Music Composition. He may add a second major, but it would probably be Physics or Math — not Engineering, because he does not have that option. He’s happy as a Music major, so he’s not complaining. But I wish he’d had the opportunity to learn enough about engineering to see if it’s a field he might have also been happy in.

It’s part of a larger problem, I think. Earlier and earlier, college-bound teenagers are expected to know what they want to do with their lives. My son was in 9th grade when presenters of the first “Prepare for College” seminar of his high-school years told 14-year-olds that they should pick one, or maybe two kinds of extracurricular activity — no more than that — to focus on throughout high school, because colleges wanted to see that they were spending their teen years immersing themselves in their most cherished areas of interest rather than dabbling in a variety different clubs, sports, and other activities. I was horrified to hear it. High school should be a safe place to try on different interests. A student who is good at drawing should feel it’s OK to join the art club and help paint a mural in the library, and then drop the art club to go out for basketball if painting didn’t hold his or her interest. If a basketball player wants to join the Latin Club and also audition for the school play during the off-season, I’d encourage it. How do students know where their interests lie if they are discouraged from trying different things?

It starts even earlier than high school. Many community-based sports teams, even for elementary-school students, expect players to practice four or five days a week and to leave weekends open for games. What happened to just playing a game for the love of it? There just aren’t a lot of opportunities for that anymore. I think we’re training kids to feel that they have no business trying anything they don’t already know they’ll excel at.

This pressure to specialize, to the exclusion of all other interests, is already part of becoming an engineering major. Is that spreading to other professions? When my son was visiting colleges, we found that architecture departments were set up in much the same way. When I was in college, I thought one of the most valuable aspects of being at a major university was the chance to take classes in subjects that fascinated me, even if I knew nothing about them and had no thought of devoting my life to them. I loved my first Russian Literature class so much that I minored in the subject. And I thoroughly enjoyed my Anthropology classes; I only took a couple of them, but they still inform the way I think about the world. We should be encouraging that kind of intellectual experimentation in students of all majors, not cutting it off.

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