Viewpoint

Why the U.S. Must Promote Engineering


I'll never forget the day when I, along with half a billion other people, watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. It was 3:56 a.m. in Belgium, and I was 7. As I sat with my parents, I thought: Someday I'm going to do that. IT was more than a wide-eyed dream; I firmly believed I'd one day see my footprint in moon dust.

Not enough children today would ever consider such a notion, due to declining interest in science, math, and engineering—particularly among girls and minorities in the U.S. As the chief technology officer at Xerox (XRX) and a proud U.S. citizen, I am greatly concerned by this disparity. But there are steps we can take to address this issue.

First, kids should experience early on how much fun science is. In my family, we encouraged our children to treat the world as their laboratory. As my now-22-year-old engineer daughter, Nena, can attest, she and her brothers watched minimal television throughout elementary and middle school, so they were left to find more creative ways to spend their time. Their afternoons regularly involved digging for bugs, building furniture for their fort, and constructing makeshift dams across the sidewalk after rainstorms. On Saturday mornings I often discovered my kitchen redecorated with their latest "science" experiments: my grad-school glassware spread across the counter and filled with seemingly random assortments of cooking ingredients that typically included vinegar and baking soda. There were plenty of messes to clean up, but I loved it.

Opportunity Interventions

Second, let's give girls and minorities more opportunities in the sciences and stand up for them when they are denied those opportunities. When my daughter and several other girls with an aptitude for math and science were told they couldn't stay in advanced math in the sixth grade because of the results of a rather arbitrary test written by the teachers, some other concerned parents and I contacted the school to ensure that our daughters remained in the class. This was not a case of parents thinking, "How dare they tell me my kid doesn't belong in advanced class." We parents all knew that if our daughters did not take that class, many doors would close. This simple intervention put my daughter on the path that made it possible for her to take Advanced Placement calculus six years later and go on to earn civil and environmental engineering degrees. In fact, all but one of the girls who stayed in that sixth–grade class went on to study science or engineering in college. At Xerox, we are addressing the disparity as best we can, but it is much easier if addressed earlier in life.

Third, we should teach engineering in middle and high school so students gain confidence and get a taste of what engineering is all about. In addition to theoretical courses, hands-on engineering experiences are critical. One such example is the FIRST Robotics competition, where in a three-month period students build and then compete with robots. Dean Kamen founded FIRST almost 20 years ago; as one of the co-founders, Xerox today supports several FIRST robotics teams. Often when I talk with girls following the successful completion of their first robot, they are amazed at what they can do.

Fourth, we must better explain to U.S. students what engineers and scientists do and why their work is so vital. Most kids tend to think engineers design cars, but they do much more. Airplanes and iPods and 3D TVs could not exist without engineering. The disciplines range from chemical, to mechanical, to electrical, to software, to environmental, to biological, to civil, and many others. What's more, new technology companies emerge from breakthrough ideas, which are often invented by engineers; our Palo Alto Research Center alone has produced more than 30 spinoffs. Engineering is a prestigious profession—more students need to realize this.

Help Getting Greed Cards

Fifth, let's formulate an immigration policy that makes it not only possible for students to come to the U.S., but also encourages them to stay here. Case in point: My husband and I came to the U.S. 25 years ago as Belgian immigrants, and although he had a master's degree in engineering and an MBA from Cornell, his green card application was rejected. In my case, despite earning a PhD from Cornell, I worked for a company that took up to four years to help employees get their green cards. Since my job was seven hours away from my husband's, and by then we had two kids, this situation was not sustainable. I quit my job and joined Xerox, which got us both our green cards. In short, a more welcoming immigration policy will result in lower costs to U.S. companies, increased family stability, and more loyal employees, who in turn will help create new jobs.

Finally, we must share more frequently how rewarding it is to be an engineer. Every day I get to work with passionate people who are envisioning and then creating the future—today: engineers and scientists who are making the planet a better place by addressing important issues such as climate change, health care, hunger, and more. One example is clean water research done by our Palo Alto Research Center. The PARC Hydrodynamic Separation technology is a low-cost, energy efficient technology whose potential applications include municipal water treatment and pretreating seawater for desalination. Given how critical the shortage of drinkable water is all over the world, this is an exciting breakthrough.

If you believe as I do, that there is no greater calling than solving these big problems, then together we must inspire young people to become scientists and engineers. Our viability as a thriving human society depends on them.

Vandebroek is Xerox's chief technology officer and president of the Xerox Innovation Group, as well as a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). She is also a member of the U.S. National Academies Committee on Science, Technology & Law; a trustee of Worcester Polytechnic Institute; and a member of the advisory council of the deans of engineering at MIT and Cornell University.

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