The Heart of the Matter: How to Inspire Future Engineers

Eric Iversen

 

We’re off to see the Wizard!

If engineering were a character in The Wizard of Oz, it would be the Tin Man. He’s missing a heart but carries an axe that proves an essential tool in the journey of Dorothy and her friends through Oz. With technical learning front and center and a culture that can lean overly rational and impersonal, engineering, too, can seem to be missing its heart — arid and unwelcoming rather than engaging and inspiring.

Of course, all along, the Tin Man had the biggest heart of anyone. He just needed help learning to see how it was already animating his generous, sensitive nature.

Finding the heart of engineering

Dave Goldberg has been on a years-long quest to bring the too-quiescent heart of engineering to the fore. In his book, A Whole New Engineer, he and co-author Mark Somerville describe how leading with emotion can yield cultural change in engineering education and inspire students to learn and achieve in exciting new ways.

Towards a movement

Every week, Dave explores this theme with guests on his online show, Big Beacon Radio, an initiative of his non-profit, Big Beacon, which seeks to lead “a movement to transform engineering education.”

I was delighted to get an invitation from Dave to appear on the show, and he interviewed me last July in a segment titled, “Inspiring the Engineers of the Future.”

A transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length, appears below.

 Dave Goldberg has been leading a movement to bring emotion and passion to engineering education since his days at the University of Illinois and Olin College of Engineering.

Dave Goldberg has been leading a movement to bring emotion and passion to engineering education since his days at the University of Illinois and Olin College of Engineering.

Inspiring the Engineers of the Future

Dave:

Today we’re very fortunate to have a special guest, Eric Iversen of Start Engineering, with us. Welcome to the show, Eric.

Eric:

Thank you very much, Dave. I’m glad to be with you.

Dave:

So you’re currently working on a start-up that’s put out some very interesting publications called Start Engineering. What can you tell the audience about the company?

Eric:

Thanks. Our mission is to make engineering exciting and accessible. Our focus is on K-12 audiences. We want to tell a story about engineering, in words and pictures, that makes it seem like something people can imagine doing, seem like something they can understand and participate in and get a handle on.

We want to get people to feel something about what engineering can be.... We’re trying to tell a different story about it.

And at the same time, we’re very focused on expanding the audiences for engineering. For lots and lots of reasons, diversity is central to our mission.

From an engineering perspective, of course, the diversity of options in your solution set makes your ultimate solution a better one. So that, as a sort of logical principle, underscores why it’s important to extend engineering into all these audiences that have historically been under-represented.

Then, of course, the social equity piece is important to us. So the diversity concern is really paramount for us.

The K-12 engineering landscape

Dave:

So, the company’s focus has really been on K-12. I guess I’m curious, though, you know the National Academy of Engineering does this sort of thing, you used to work with the American Society for Engineering Education, they turn out publications. What prompted the creation of Start Engineering as a for-profit firm, an entrepreneurial startup?

Eric:

Well, you’re right, of course, that there are other actors in the space. One thing in terms of the structure of the space, we don’t see anybody else whose core mission is to serve these audiences, the K-12 audiences. Everybody does K-12 engineering as a sideline, just about.

All of us at Start Engineering – all two-and-a-half of us, I should add – came from ASEE. And what we saw there was the energy and passion around the K-12 activities that people brought to it, the hunger for the knowledge from the audiences that we would reach. But nobody’s doing it as their core mission. So, I think the simplest answer to that question is that, literally nobody else was doing it.

A focus on the message

Dave:

Well, and what is it? Vince Bertram at Project Lead the Way might disagree with you, that the centrality of their mission is K-12, that it’s about STEM, and very highly emphasizing engineering. Wouldn’t you agree?

Eric:

So, right, to be clear, there are numerous wonderful educational programs, like Project Lead the Way, that start with a premise that engineering is something people should be doing and learning in K-12.

What I was thinking about is the messaging piece. Trying to organize and make coherent a picture or a story about engineering that cuts across all the disciplines, that embraces the ethos and possibilities associated with engineering, not so much the technical curriculum pieces and materials.

 

 

The heart of the matter

Dave:

Yeah, and I’m hearing that description and the distinction that you’ve made. So there have been various actors working on technical curricula – some in the curriculum, some like FIRST Robotics on the outside as extracurricular – but I’m hearing the distinction, as, yes, about communication, but I heard it through my lens of emotion. I heard it as the emotional piece, the inspirational piece. Is that fair?

Eric:

Absolutely fair, that’s exactly right. That gets to one of our core principles. We want to get people to feel something about what engineering can be.

Because as we all know, the word “engineering” has intimidating connotations. It’s difficult for people to find a point of entry when they’re asked to engage with engineering because it seems so fearsome, so fraught with math and science and a certain kind of geeky profile that requires a command of knowledge before you get to join the club. We’re trying to tell a different story about it.

Why Start Engineering?

Dave:

Okay, so, the two-and-a-half members of the team were all part of the K-12 efforts at ASEE. Is that how it got started? What was it that really forced the company’s hand to go off and take a shot at an entrepreneurial start-up?

Eric:

Right, so the company started, in some senses, about 15 years ago, when Bob Black, our CEO and Founder, and I were working at ASEE.

You know, as everybody remembers, that was the dot-com boom, in fact it was the waning of the dot-com boom. And people felt a lot of anxiety about where the continuing supply of innovative thoughts and workforce members was going to come from to keep the U.S. at the forefront of technological innovation and global competitiveness, and so on. Everybody remembers those years.

One thing that we experienced at that moment at ASEE was a lot of interest, and frankly some concern, about what was going on in engineering education and how people were reaching into younger audiences to try to make engineering education meaningful and accessible and relevant and so on.

Well, you know, we didn’t have a good answer for anybody. So we started looking around into what was going on at schools, and what we came to learn was that there were all these really exciting, impassioned people working on K-12 engineering outreach, and then, as time went on, K-12 engineering education.

So we got excited about it, too, because these were just wonderful people to work with. They were excited and they were very open to collaboration and wanted to tell you everything that they were doing because it was so meaningful to them.

 An introduction to engineering for grades K-5.

An introduction to engineering for grades K-5.

So inside the society we started to build some K-12-oriented operations around outreach and education. We started a magazine designed for high school students, we started an annual teachers workshop to try to get them familiar with what engineering might look like the classroom, and a website. I spoke all over the country about the topic.

Well, time passed, and we all moved in some different directions but, I think, still missed that excitement and that community.

About three-and-a-half, four years ago, Bob retired, but as is his nature, wasn’t able to stay retired. So he decided he was going to revisit some of those early ASEE ideas that we had, but from within a for-profit setting.

He got into Start Engineering with this first book, Dream, Invent, Create, for elementary school students. And then I had reached the end of my time at the subsequent job I had gone on to, and would have lunch with Bob and hear his stories and be really jealous. It just seemed like he was having all the fun and I wanted to go in on it with him. So the timing was good for both of us to kind of rejoin forces and see what we could do with this.

Engineering for elementary students

Dave:

Let’s turn to the publications themselves. You were kind enough to send me copies of them. I’m looking now at Dream, Invent, Create.

Who is this targeted for and what’s this publication about?

Eric:

This publication is meant for a K-5 audience.

We wanted the book to be accessible and approachable for kids, whether they were going to have it read to them or whether they would read it on their own. It’s scored at about a third-grade reading level, so it’s right about in the middle of that targeted K-5 audience.

 The rhymes and illustrations work to inspire kids to imagine they can change the world through engineering. The edge text helps teachers and parents fill out understanding of the particular field of engineering under discussion.

The rhymes and illustrations work to inspire kids to imagine they can change the world through engineering. The edge text helps teachers and parents fill out understanding of the particular field of engineering under discussion.

The goal of the book is really to inspire kids to see engineering as a way for them to express their hopes and dreams about what they can do in the world with their passions and energies and make it a better place. That is, in large measure, what engineering sets you up to do in its best moments: to do something to make the world a better place, a safer place, a healthier place, an easier place, a more fun place, and we want kids to understand that that’s available to them. The book urges them to articulate their dreams and see engineering as a way to make that real.

Keeping things real

Dave:

And the book is very attractive, and it has rhyming throughout. I like this page that ties in engineering as an entrée to business:

 Illustrations are designed to be fun to look at but also credible and realistic, representing something like what actually happens in real engineering processes.

Illustrations are designed to be fun to look at but also credible and realistic, representing something like what actually happens in real engineering processes.

The illustration is cartoon-ish, but the content is actually fairly sophisticated technologically. For K-5, it’s pretty good stuff.

Eric:

We worked very hard with various people – educators, industry partners. Our first goal was that the stuff be good, that the quality be credible and high, because if it wasn’t, nothing else we said was going to be persuasive. So we wanted to use this book, and all of our books, for that matter, to establish an ethos, which is reliable, trustworthy, credible, and real.

We’re trying to represent things as they really happen in our world, but in a way that is accessible and fun and engaging. So the book works on many different levels. It should teach the kids not only what these things look like in the real world, but it can teach their parents and, not insignificantly, their teachers.

A key part of the book, which we understood to be valuable but not the degree to which it has proven to be valuable, is the text around the edge of the page, which is narrative. It addresses things about why this particular discipline of engineering is cool, how it touches other kinds of areas, how it might have beneficial ecological impact, what other kinds of exciting things it leads to in terms of consumer goods or whatever.

It’s a little cheat sheet for teachers or for parents, since young readers won’t notice that text because it doesn’t follow the pattern of language on a page that they’ve been taught to look for.

How the book’s doing

Dave:

Nice. So how’s this being received? Have you sold a bunch of copies, who are you selling them to, and what’s been the reception?

Eric:

You know, the reception’s been great. People really like it, teachers twig to it right away, they see it as something their kids will enjoy, that will engage them.

Another benefit we have found with the book is that it serves very well even as a literacy exercise. Obviously, elementary education is significantly focused on reading. So the rhyme sets up a lot of interesting reading exercises people can do with the book, too.

They can ask kids to think about phonetics and meaning and how they relate and how they might think of different constructions and build out their own kinds of language skills. It has a kind of metacognitive benefit, too, in terms of how it can fit in with reading exercises that people are already doing.

Bringing color to engineering

 This 20-page coloring and activity book shows kids that the engineered world is all around them all the time.

This 20-page coloring and activity book shows kids that the engineered world is all around them all the time.

Dave:

I’m going to shift now, so let’s go down-market. I’m looking at a coloring book, who’s this coloring book for?

Eric:

The coloring book is for a younger audience, it’s a PreK-2 audience in our minds. I would add that it went through extensive focus group testing on my own three children. They enjoyed it and they continue to go back to it for the coloring opportunities and the reading.

But the idea with this book is that we want to give kids an idea that engineering is all around them. The larger idea, of course, is that we all live in an engineered and designed world much more in the natural world. But it’s so pervasive and shapes so much of what we do that it’s almost become invisible.

We wanted at a very formative and early age to give them a sense that when they look out on the world and they make use of tools and they go in cars and they walk around, that it’s engineering that made that world. It’s not just nature that in some inevitable way yielded up these products that make our lives possible.

Uses of the book

 Parents and educators can find tips and guidance on how to discuss the engineering content inside  What's Engineering?

Parents and educators can find tips and guidance on how to discuss the engineering content inside What's Engineering?

Dave:

This one doesn’t have the writing around the edges, but at the end it has a section for parents and educators so they can discuss. How important are these materials at the end of the coloring book?

Eric:

Very important, and again, they have a kind of stealth purpose, which is to encourage the adults who are working through the book with the children to rethink some of these assumptions or ideas that they might have also.

Engineering study and work

Dave:

Yeah, I really like that. We take all of our technology so for granted, to the point where the technology and the people who bring it to us are all invisible. I love this. This is great.

So the third thing I’m looking at here is called a “career guide.” It’s called Start Engineering. Who’s this one for?

 This career guide to engineering for middle and high school students showcases cool things engineers can end up doing in their jobs.

This career guide to engineering for middle and high school students showcases cool things engineers can end up doing in their jobs.

Eric:

So this is for middle school and high school students. The purpose of this publication is to help them understand what engineering can lead to, what kinds of cool things engineers do.

The bulk of the book is two-page features about cool things engineers get involved with across all kinds of different activities that people might or might not think of as engineering-based or engineering-related.

Then there’s lots of other information in the book to do with more practical matters: what you might expect from an engineering education, what kinds of things students experience, some guidelines for looking for money, capsule descriptions of the fields, starting salaries in different disciplines of engineering, what schools give out what number of degrees in what fields.

We try to present a full, data-rich picture of engineering to support the engaging story content at the front of the book to give people a pathway, or some guidance on the pathway, that they can use to plot out their approach to engineering as a course of study and work.

Dave:

So, for example, on page 14 there’s a story entitled, “Bionic Grace,” about Amy Purdy, a snowboarder, actress, and model with two prosthetic legs who also appeared on Dancing With the Stars. These are great stories, these are inspiring stories, well done. How did you pick these? It’s like ASEE’s Prism on steroids.

 In features like this one about Amy Purdy's prosthetic legs,  Start Engineering: A Career Guide  describes some of the cool things engineers get involved with through their professional activities.

In features like this one about Amy Purdy's prosthetic legs, Start Engineering: A Career Guide describes some of the cool things engineers get involved with through their professional activities.

Eric:

Thank you. Well, you know, we just stay tuned in to as many different sources of information as we can.

We’ve all acquired the habit of seeing things through the “popularizing-of-engineering” lens that we developed at ASEE and have honed and extended and amplified with Start Engineering. That’s the way we consume stories in the media: What’s the engineering angle? How can we relate this to the technology behind whatever is happening in this story?

Once you adopt that perspective, you see it everywhere, because it is everywhere, it’s not hard to find. And then, of course, the human-interest piece is important, and we all come from a humanities or social sciences background, so it’s a natural impulse for us to try to tell a story around people or larger social interests, appealing things, fun things, whatever the hook might be.

The journey of a start-up

Dave:

These are some of your main offerings right now. I’d also like to talk about the journey of your start-up and the things you’ve learned. Start Engineering is an entrepreneurial start-up, what’s that journey been like for you?

Eric:

You know, it’s been endlessly interesting.

With an entrepreneurial start-up in a for-profit company, there is a very, very clear and easy indicator of success, and that is whether you’re selling anything. So that has a way of focusing your attention and motivating your interest and abilities and creativity to just keep trying things.

For all that this sounds like pressure or constraint, it’s actually very liberating, because as long as you’re adequately measuring the things you’re trying and assessing them, you’re constantly feeding that information back into the improvement cycle.

It’s really interesting, and you know, that’s kind of the spirit of engineering, too, which is design under constraint, right, and a start-up is activity under a very clear constraint of the need to sell stuff. That focuses the mind, and it forces a kind of creativity on you when you’re constrained by that purpose. But paradoxically, that is liberating and fun and makes it really rewarding to see when something does work.

Inspirational messaging for higher engineering education?

Dave:

All right, so this has been freeing, you’ve been doing some great stuff. I want to ask where Start Engineering is going, but before I ask that, one of the things that strikes me about your work – it’s so well done – and one of the problems we have is that we get kids pumped up in K-12 to come to engineering at big public universities or wherever, and they come in, and then we suck the life out of them. We put them through weed-out courses and we discourage them. Is there a role for the kind of inspirational message of your work in higher ed? It seems to me that maybe there is, and I’m just curious as to how you react to that assessment.

Eric:

Well, you know, I totally agree, of course. And here’s the thing, the people who are doing the work that Bob and I and our other partner, Stacie, resonated so much with are all engineering educators, they were all higher engineering educators.

There is a large cohort already embedded in the field with all the markers of institutional status that you would want – which is to say, tenure and grant money and longevity and external recognition, and so on – they’re all there now, and they’re working in these wonderful, exciting areas that we have sort of piggybacked onto.

The Pre-College Engineering Education Division, for example, within ASEE, is the second-biggest division. And I was there at the moment of its birth, in 2002 in Montreal, when it was three people sitting around a table, saying, we should have a division for this activity because it’s so cool. And now, 15 years later, it’s the second-biggest division in the society.

 The Pre-College Engineering Education Division is the second-biggest in ASEE, after less than 15 years of operation.

The Pre-College Engineering Education Division is the second-biggest in ASEE, after less than 15 years of operation.

So they’re there and they need to be given visibility and some space to run, because it can come from within the community as it’s currently arranged.

Culture change for faculty members

Dave:

Yeah, but what kind of publications could you direct at higher ed in the same spirit as Start Engineering’s K-12 efforts? In some ways, we’ve got exactly the same problem in higher ed, right, we have teachers, many of whom would like to be more inspirational, but who get up and are the “sage on the stage” and they don’t know what to do to be more inspirational. This isn’t your bailiwick, but it seems to me we’ve got the same problem, and we’re doing a disservice if we send kids off to engineering school, and we don’t move that needle a little bit more than we have.

Eric:

There’s a demand side and supply side to that question. And one way to think about what we’re doing at Start Engineering is to affect the demand side. We want to embed an idea or a vision of what engineering can be in the minds of students who are going off into college.

You know, for better or for worse, we are in an era where students are consumers of their education, and universities see them that way. So they have a tremendous amount of force and ability to shape that product offering that universities present in the form of engineering education.

And then, you know, on the supply side, you have to change the values and behaviors of the faculty population.

Dave:

Right, I’m just asking, what would Start Engineering for higher ed be like? I think that’s an interesting question for reflection.

Well, let’s talk about where Start Engineering is headed. You had some really cool things to start. What’s next?

Eric:

Our newest book is a bilingual edition of Dream, Invent, Create.

 The bilingual edition of  Dream, Invent, Create  brings an inspiring message about engineering to students for whom language might be a barrier to learning and getting excited about the field.

The bilingual edition of Dream, Invent, Create brings an inspiring message about engineering to students for whom language might be a barrier to learning and getting excited about the field.

That’s hot off the presses, and we’re really excited about the bilingual edition because that is a way to enlarge the reach of the publication to different audiences and to Spanish-speaking students for whom language in engineering is a barrier. So that’s been exciting.

Beyond that, there are two directions we’re going that are expanding our mission into different venues.

We’ve got a really exciting partnership with a company in Canada that offers a kind of virtual STEM guidance counselor website on a subscription basis.

And we’re getting into developing teacher training activities and materials through a new non-profit we’re working on with some educational partners.

Dave:

Very cool. I wish we had more time. This is really exciting stuff, Eric, and I appreciate you taking the time to join us. Buy the stuff, take it home to your kids, and teachers, take it to your classrooms. Thanks, Eric, for being on the show.

Eric:

Thank you so much, a real pleasure.

Where to find more

Dave’s show airs Mondays at 1 PM ET. Give it a listen if you’re interested in hearing from other people doing creative things to bring heart to engineering education and make it come alive for more and different students.

And please share our Big Beacon Radio interview with any interested friends or colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

Now available! A bilingual version of Dream, Invent, Create, for making engineering come alive in Spanish and English at the same time.

Our Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And for any outreach or education program, check out What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide. Our books can help deliver an accessible, engaging picture of engineering to all kinds of K-12 audiences.


Photos: Tin Woodman illustration by William Wallace Denslow, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum; Big Beacon Radio Show, courtesy of Big Beacon.