Engineers Week close to Washington's birthday is no accident

  • Published
  • By Davy Belk
  • Ogden Air Logistics Center Director of Engineering Directorate
A few weeks ago, Feb. 17-23 in particular, was National Engineers Week. It's no accident that this was the same week we celebrated the birthday of George Washington, surveyor and General of the Revolutionary Army, who at Valley Forge in June of 1778, issued a call for engineers and engineering education. Later, President Washington established a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers to be educated and stationed at West Point, New York, and to later become the US Military Academy. The man who was "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." could fairly be called America's first engineer as well. In this as in other areas, George Washington set a direction for America that would make it a great nation.

Throughout our nation's history, engineering innovation and creativity have been an American hallmark, shaping our expectations for an always-improving life-style and society. Even before the information technology revolution, economic studies have shown that as much as 85 percent of the income growth per capita in the United States is attributable to technological change. The pace of change and its impact on our lives has only increased since the infotech revolution. Remarkable advances in computational power, communications, health care, agriculture, and transportation have occurred in the last thirty years. In the United States, no matter where you live or what your job, engineering and innovation will have had a huge impact on you. Whether good or bad, it has given each of us options to learn, to create, and to influence people and events that are an order of magnitude beyond the options available to our grandparents.

Unfortunately, we can no longer take our technological preeminence for granted. The very advances that enable us are enablers for the rest of the world as well, and those that take advantage of opportunities to learn and create will be the ones reaping the economic (and security) rewards of technological change in the future. Today, 15 percent of undergraduate degrees in the US are in natural science or engineering. Compare this to China with 50 percent. In 2004, China graduated an estimated 350,000 engineers, computer scientists, and information technologists with four-year degrees compared to about 140,000 in the US. Currently 56 percent of engineering PhDs awarded in the United States are to foreign-born students. We now face the real prospect of losing not just manufacturing jobs, but also engineering jobs to other countries. Perhaps more importantly, we must be concerned that we may also lose the technological advantage that has been one key to our national defense.

As a nation, we have taken some actions. DoD implemented the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) program that will spend over $250 million over the next six years providing scholarships for math and science college students. ( Utah has expanded engineering degree opportunities, including an Electrical Engineering degree obtainable by attending the Davis Campus of Weber State, and legislation is under discussion to further enhance support for Utah science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

However, it will take more than government programs to achieve the change we need. We must change the culture of the next generation. If you are trained in STEM, then take time to mentor, encourage, and insure the success of someone in middle or high school. Whether you are "into" math or not, tell your children that yes, there are uses for the math they are learning, and yes, they can be successful in a career in engineering, math, or science. And next year when Engineers Week comes around, hug an engineer. Our nation's future depends on it.