By Travis Engen

Something to Shout About

It is reported that in Britain's Yellow Pages, there is listing: "Boring—see Civil Engineers."

We live at a remarkable hinge moment when the very nature of making things has changed—changed in ways that have not changed since steam first powered an engine. Yet, most young people neither understand our profession nor share its excitement. They would indeed agree with the Yellow Pages listing. For our business and society to survive in the next century, we need many talented engineers. To reach those goals, we need a new understanding of engineering itself and new thoughts on the education of engineers for the workplace of the 21st century. Too often engineering is viewed as "technical" and somehow separate from our "culture." And yet, who has not reveled in the lines of the song, "Route 66":

"Well if you ever plan to motor west Try taking my way on the highway that's the best Get your kicks on Route 66."

We sing of the road, but few understand its making. How many classrooms include descriptions of the remarkable engineering feats of the Eisenhower Interstate System? How many teachers understand the accomplishments of crossing the Mississippi with steel and cable, of traversing the Mojave Desert, of tunneling through and crossing over the Rockies? My company, ITT Industries, and tens of thousands of other good companies need a lot of good engineers who have been set on fire by the possibilities of their profession, who in their education have been taught, not to remember, but to think.

We need engineers like General Electric's spectacularly successful CEO Jack Welch, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. In his 18 years at GE, Welch turned the company into the ninth biggest and second most profitable company in the world. We need engineers like Jim Clark, who is best known for helping to create Netscape, but is actually much more significant as the inventor of the "Geometry Engine" chip. In the 1970s Clark believed that computers could make things look the way they really are. Consequently he created the chip on which all CAD (computer-aided design) of cars, aircraft, and machinery is now based.

How do we get the engineers we need for a great country and great companies? We need programs that cross years, cross curricula, and cross culture. We must cross years. Elementary school is not too early to introduce kids to the excitement of making things and seeing how things work. Pulling a string to make the disk of a plastic helicopter fly can be an introduction to Leonardo and to the excitement of conceiving and making.

At the high-school level, innovative approaches are also crossing years and making engineering pursuits more attractive. For example, Project Lead the Way is an ambitious program that operates in 22 states to train high-school students in engineering. Says the organization's executive director, Richard Blasi, "If you're a student who has an aptitude or interest in going to a four-year liberal arts college, you're going to be very well prepared for that. But most high schools are not structured to give kids the kind of engineering career exposure that they need." At the college level we must ensure that freshmen and sophomores who are interested in engineering get to it faster and get their hands dirty in their specialty. Northwestern University, for example, uses "Engineering First" to introduce first-year students to working in teams to solve engineering problems. Crossing curricula is clearly essential. Engineering skills are no longer enough. To cross curricula we must have programs like "Manufacturing Across the Curriculum" at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, where they are working to join leadership skills with technical expertise. A global market requires a curriculum without boundaries. It is a remarkably exciting time to be an engineer. We must ensure that our youth realize this and have the means and incentives to join our profession. We must all be teachers, curriculum developers, mentors, public relations experts, and international visionaries.

Let's look to the Far East for motivation. As a result of government policy, public prestige, remuneration, and educational policy, a remarkable event occurs annually in India. All across the nation hundreds of thousands of Indian youths sit for two-day qualifying exams to gain the right to 2000 spots in the most competitive universities for the most prestigious career: engineering. Though I do not suggest we emulate India's relentless winnowing process, I surely do suggest we seek the means to create that enthusiasm and that interest for this most remarkable of specialties.

Travis Engen is chairman and chief executive of ITT Industries in White Plains, New York.