Growing Kentucky’s Engineering Population
This essay originally appears in Louisville Business First:
In our post-recession, 21st century ecosystem, there are many theories about structuring a successful economy. Diversity. A commitment to manufacturing. Less reliance on financial services. And…a deep, robust investment in innovation and technology.
In 2011, Marc Andreessen of the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz famously declared that software ‘is eating the world’. This theme certainly resonates for anyone who has watched software evolve from rudimentary languages to a mainstay in every facet of a consumer’s daily life in just 50 years.
But it’s not just software; it’s technology that is eating the world. And technology is built by the engineer, society’s most undervalued degree. A few lines of code by an engineer can have vast, global impact, like Facebook’s role in Egypt’s political uprising in 2012. Get the right components soldered to a board and you can create Nest, the smart thermostat leading the ‘Internet of Things’ revolution.
While some places, like Silicon Valley, contain an embarrassment of riches in this amazing modern resource, the state of Kentucky struggles to keep pace with its peers in both quantity and quality of engineering graduates. In fact, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray have called for Ky’s engineering colleges to double their output of engineers, where it currently ranks near the bottom of the country in per capita engineering graduates. We believe that we must alter Kentucky’s ‘tech trajectory’ using a multi-layered approach to grow the base of degreed engineers and technologically literate citizens.
The First Step: Engineering in Higher Education
As engineers, we are accustomed to solving complex problems by first breaking them down into simpler, more manageable parts. If our goal is to have more engineering graduates from Kentucky’s universities, one place to start is helping more of our current engineering students succeed. Undergraduate engineering programs suffer high attrition rates; nearly half of the students who begin an engineering degree will never finish it. Current students could benefit from the support of industry mentors and more engineering-related, hands-on experiences like team projects, research, and internships.
Step Two: Reinventing the K-12 STEM Curriculum
Over the past few decades, there has been a visible emphasis on STEM education. It’s become one of the favorite buzzwords of politicians, educators, and parent groups. While at first I was ecstatic about this trend, when I dug deeper, I began to notice its shortcomings. First, STEM is a misnomer when we look at current curriculum standards. While Science and Math are omnipresent, most schools gloss over the Technology and Engineering parts. In fact, 90% of our schools don’t have any Computer Science courses. This is a bit backwards, as it turns out that Technology and Engineering degrees are required for the majority of jobs that fall under the STEM umbrella.
Step Three: Changing the Culture
So we’ve found significant room for improvement in K-12 education, but can we dig deeper and find a root cause that precedes it? Sure we can: it’s our culture. While technology and engineering are embedded in our daily lives, they’re not embedded in our daily conversations. Right now, we as a society think that the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory is what engineering is: lovable, socially awkward dudes who make Star Wars jokes and love technology for technology’s sake. Truly, engineering is about people. In fact, when engineering is done well, we stop noticing it. We don’t have to consider whether the bridge will support the weight of our school bus, how crude oil became the 87-octane gasoline at the pump, or how grandma’s FaceTime call from Florida makes its way to my phone.
Our goal in having more engineers in Kentucky is a significant challenge. We must focus on growing an environment that produces engineers, which relies on a positive feedback loop: more engineers beget more engineers. Ultimately, for Kentucky, it means economic growth and opportunity for everyone, in the same way that the industrial revolution lifted millions of people out of poverty.