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Consulting Assignments

High school students are reaching out to engineers, but in the wrong way.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - Requests for help too often reveal a lack of basic preparation and effort.Of late, increasing numbers of high school students contact me seeking advice and help on an engineering project or report for a class they are taking. While I am pleased to see this interest in engineering among precollege students, I have become concerned over how brashly they seek the assistance of a stranger in completing their assignments.

Most recently, a student asked for my help on a design project relating to automobile cup holders. Evidently, he found via an Internet search that I had written an article on the subject, and so he contacted me seeking advice, if not a ready-made response to his assignment. There was no indication at all that he had even read the article before writing to me.

A more common E-mail inquiry is a request for an interview about one of my books or about engineering generally. Typically, an initial message from a student asks if I would mind answering “a few questions.” All too often, after I agree to do so, I receive a longer-than-expected list of questions by return mail: How would I describe my field? What is my job title? What are my duties? What is my work schedule? What is my educational background? Would I do it all over again? What career advice can I give to a high school student?

Depending on the time of year and my schedule, I may or may not have the time to give very detailed answers. On one occasion, when I was especially busy, I responded to a student’s generic questions with quite brief but nonetheless pertinent answers. To have answered them in depth might have taken a series of essays. Within a week or so, I received a message from the student’s mother, excoriating me for not having provided more help with her son’s assignment.

My sense is that increasing numbers of high school teachers are giving their students rather explicit instructions to contact an engineer as part of an assignment. The students seem also to be given rigid templates and strict guidelines about what constitutes the appropriate form and content for a book report or an interview. And the expected length of the engineer’s response seems also to be specified.

Such assignments may give the student exposure to engineering and engineers and to the concept of consulting with experts, but I wonder if the methodology additionally may inculcate a sense that the first response to any assignment or problem is to seek outside help. Certainly, it is good to recognize one’s limitations, but to contact a stranger for assistance without having first done some basic research and preparation cannot instill in students a sense of responsibility and protocol.

Even high school students should be expected to come to an interview prepared with questions prompted not only by a teacher’s template but also by ideas relevant to a specific interviewee’s work. Otherwise, there may be little to glean from any exchange that ensues. All too often, students who have approached me with questions have given no hint as to their academic background or interests, no context in which I can provide truly meaningful answers to their questions.

The practice of students seeking out engineers to learn more about their profession is certainly to be encouraged. And judging from the increase in the number of queries coming from high school students, college faculty members appear to be cooperating. They want to help students at all levels. But being approached cold with laundry lists of questions relating to everything from the nature of an engineer’s workday to job satisfaction appears to be asking too much.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His new book, An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, is published by Cambridge University Press.




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