Harris Poll: What's an Engineer?
What do most Americans know about engineering? Not much, according to a recent Harris Poll conducted for the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES). Respondents said they know more about science, and are more likely to associate invention and discovery with scientists than with engineers.
AAES helped develop the poll, titled "American Perspectives on Engineers and Engineering," after a June Harris Poll measuring the prestige of various professions showed that engineers have "consistent but mediocre prestige" in the eyes of the general public. (Medicine was most often identified as a profession of "very great" prestige, while journalism and union leadership held the bottom positions of the 17 professions included in the poll.)
In particular, the AAES poll was designed to probe the reasons that scientists rank so much higher than engineers, says Martha Sloan, chair of AAES and an electrical engineering professor at Michigan Technological University.
"What struck me was the degree to which people understand what scientists and technicians do, but not engineers," Sloan says. Scientists are five times more likely to be thought of as inventors, and seven times more likely to be credited with protecting the environment than are engineers, according to the poll. "Clearly, something is wrong out there that we need to fix," she says.
Sloan acknowledged that improving engineers' image has historically been a difficult task, largely because no one is quite sure where to start. Since the poll showed that the public blames much of its ignorance on a lack of media coverage, "maybe we need more engineers to write about engineering," she suggests. Another possibility is teaching children about engineers' technological achievements as a distinct, and equal, companion to advances in the pure sciences. Either way, "I don't see a silver bullet out there," Sloan admits.
For more information on the poll, see www.aaes.org.
Minority Graduate Enrollments Drop
The number of first-year graduate enrollments of African Americans in the engineering and science fields dropped more than 20 percent between 1996 and 1997, according to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The number of Hispanic American entering graduate students in science and engineering also declined during the same period, down 16.2 percent.
Graduate enrollment of African Americans in science and engineering remained relatively steady from 1994 to 1996, and the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans and Hispanic Americans had been increasing steadily, so the drop in 1997 was unexpected, according to the report, "Losing Ground: Science and Engineering Graduate Education of Black and Hispanic Americans."
The report attributes the drop to an "unwelcoming environment" on campuses after recent state and federal court rulings banning affirmative action. The rulings have left many institutions with no clear guidelines on minority enrollment issues, and in turn have discouraged students from pursuing Ph.Ds in science and engineering.
"The federal government must make clear to institutions what they can and can't do," said Shirley Malcom, director of the AAAS Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs. "The nation needs a coherent policy that not only addresses the lack of minority representation in these fields, but also provides a structure to ensure that the workforce mirrors the face of the population."
Presidential Awards Honor Mentors
Engineering educators were among the honorees this fall at a White House ceremony celebrating efforts to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in engineering, science, and mathematics through mentoring.
The National Science Foundation-funded 1998 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring recognized 10 individuals and eight institutions for their work with students at all grade levels.
Award recipient Sheila Browne, a chemistry professor at Mount Holyoke College, benefited from mentoring when she was a student, and now has been recognized for her own efforts. "For me, teachers made the whole difference," Browne says. "If they weren't there for me, I wouldn't be here now." Her mentoring activities have included serving as a faculty advisor for two minority student organizations, working with 83 research assistants (40 percent of whom were women of color), and organizing faculty development workshops on improving advising.
Armando Rodriguez, an electrical engineering professor at Arizona State University, was honored for his undergraduate research program. "Kids [from underrepresented groups] lack role models, direction, and financial assistance," Rodriguez says. "I grew up in a tough area myself, and I feel it is my duty to help as many students as possible."
NSF Director Rita Colwell was on hand for the ceremony and lauded the honorees' work. "Just as the awarding of the Nobel Prize ensures that we honor major accomplishments in science, this mentoring award helps ensure that we will have a well-trained workforce in science, mathematics, and engineering, and citizens well prepared for the challenges of the 21st century," Colwell said.
The award includes a $10,000 grant and a commemorative certificate. Rodriguez will use the money to provide small scholarships to undergraduates working with him. Browne plans to use the money to further her goal of creating more mentors.
In 1994, the Clinton Administration's science policy blueprint, Science in the National Interest, stated goals to produce the best-trained scientists and engineers for the 21st century, and to enhance all Americans' scientific and technological literacy. The presidential mentoring awards are an outgrowth of those goals.
Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring
Winser E. Alexander, electrical engineering professor, North Carolina State University
Sheila E. Browne, chemistry professor, Mount Holyoke College
D. Allan Butterfield, chemistry professor, University of Kentucky
Billy Joe Evans, chemistry professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Aubrey Gorbman, zoology professor (emeritus), University of Washington
Jesse M. Nicholson, chemistry department chair, Howard University
Su-Seng Pang, mechanical engineering professor, Louisiana State University
Armando A. Rodriguez, electrical engineering professor, Arizona State University
Nina M. Roscher, chemistry professor and department chair, American University
Herbert B. Silber, chemistry professor and director of nuclear science facility, San Jose State University
AT&T Laboratories, New Jersey
Bryn Mawr College Department of Physics
Stevens Institute of Technology's Office of Women's Programs
Times2, Inc.'s To Improve Mathematics, Engineering & Science Studies program
University of California at Berkeley's Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science,
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Mathematics and Science Education Network's Precollege Program
University of Washington's Women in Engineering Initiative
Science Policy Approved
Amid a flurry of legislative activity before heading home for November elections, the House of Representatives approved the National Science Policy Study (H.R. 578) by resolution.
Commissioned by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and authored by Science Committee Vice-Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), the report, Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy, will guide the development of the United States' long-term science and technology policy. The report is not without its critics, however.
During the floor debate, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) spoke on behalf of Democrats' concerns with the study. "We find the report needs to address four critical areas: the role of underrepresented populations in the fields of science and technology, social and behavioral sciences, K–12 science and math education, and the challenges of environmental quality," Johnson said.
Ehlers said he understands concerns raised about the report's limited scope. Some groups "believe that we should have gone further, and indeed we should have and would have in certain subject areas had we had the time," Ehlers said.
"I consider the release of this report to be a commencement; it is a beginning and not an end," he explained. "It is intended to serve as the foundation for continued discussion within the Committee on Science, within the Congress, and within the nation regarding the future funding of science and policy decisions relating thereto. This report was not intended to be an end in itself, but rather to stimulate discussion and provide direction for the Congress and for the Committee on Science in future deliberation on this topic."
ASEE's Engineering Research Council Chair Earl Dowell, who testified before the committee during hearings on the report, said he was pleased to see it adopted so quickly. "The report will be an important landmark in the national conversations on these critical policy questions for engineering and science," Dowell said.
The full report is available at www.house.gov/science/science_policy_report.htm. The Democrats' response is available at www.house.gov/ science_democrats.
Can Cyberspace Be Dangerous to Your Mental Health?
The Internet has the potential to make us socially isolated, lonely, and depressed, according to the unexpected results of a study of home computer users by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University.
Published this fall in The American Psychologist, the findings provide a consistent picture of the downside of using the Internet extensively as a source of information or as a setting for friendship and social support.
"We were surprised to find thatwhat is a social technology has such antisocial consequences," says lead author Robert Kraut, a Carnegie Mellon social psychology and human computer interaction professor.
Even though people in the study heavily used electronic mail and other communication services on the Internet, the research found that spending time on the Internet was associated with decreasing interaction with family members, reductions in the number of friends and acquaintances they kept up with, and increases in depression and loneliness.
"We hope our findings help make things change on the Internet. We are not talking about Internet addicts, just regular people," Kraut explains. "These are not just results that occur in the extremes. And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing."
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