Changing attitudes to boost STEM career

May 10, 2013
By: Dan Davis

My wife works with some pretty smart people. She's a math teacher, which puts her in day-to-day contact with talented teachers and highly intelligent students in her advanced placement courses.

On her staff is a former engineer who recently had received constructive criticism about his teaching skills during an appraisal. This engineer-turned-teacher confided that he wasn't quite sure how the appraiser had arrived at his opinion because his knowledge of math was unquestionable. Certainly, there must be some kind of mistake.

There's no mistake. Engineers and mathematically gifted people see the world differently  from others. As a result, they sometimes give off an aura of superiority, which is not the best way to win friends and influence people.

The editors of The FABRICATOR and its sister publications encounter this scenario plenty of times during the course of pulling together stories. Engineers eschew interview requests and pass the responsibility on to marketing types who can speak in a vernacular peppered with words such as "innovative," "revolutionary," and paradigm-shifting"—which don't mean a lot without proper context. Talking with engineers provides the editors with a chance to get the real "why" behind the "what," not just marketing hype. The technical talk may be over the average editor's head, but that's what good note-taking, digital audio recording, and follow-up questions are for. Ultimately, metal fabricators are problem-solvers, and they want to know the details behind technology developments.

But this conversation isn't meant to resolve an editor's challenge. It's meant to address a growing industry concern: the lack of college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Of all U.S. college graduates, only 5.6 percent have degrees in STEM fields; in China 47 percent of students graduate with STEM degrees.

Companies and institutions interested in expanding the ranks of engineers and scientists need to change the general attitude of those already in the ranks. The status quo can be extremely off-putting for many who otherwise might consider pursuing a career in STEM fields.

Just look at the dearth of women in these technical areas. Without a doubt, many of them have knowledge and skills to contribute mightily to the pursuit of scientific and engineering achievement, but they find the old-boy networks and sexist attitudes difficult to deal with over a long period of time. And when you find yourself suffocating, you look to find a breath of fresh air somewhere else. For women, that is often outside the engineering ranks.

This tolerance also needs to be extended to those people who simply don't have the mathematical and critical-thinking skills engineers are blessed with. Others can learn those skills and refine their own talents, but it takes time. As mentioned earlier, sometimes things don't come as easily to some as they do to others.

My wife took her high school's math team to the state finals in Champaign, Ill., in early May. The team of extremely bright and energetic students finished 16th in the division of similarly sized schools. While there, my wife noticed kids from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora, Ill.—which went on to win the state championship in the aforementioned division—finishing math problems in 15 seconds that took her about 10 minutes to finish as she was preparing to proctor the same test. Sure, these kids may have had special training on similar problems, but they still are a rare breed. They see those math problems completely differently than other intelligent students do. They have a gift.

Everyone gets that engineers are talented. We just don't need to be belittled when being reminded of that fact.

As for my wife, she enjoyed this past school year more than any others in recent years. The students on the math team and in her advanced classes challenged her and appreciated her efforts. She loved working with them, and hopefully others will love working with them as they enter STEM fields.
Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281