would in one fell swoop reach out to more young men and women
than I would over the rest of my academic career.
I was invited to be a judge for the cable television show Junkyard
Wars, sponsored by The Learning Channel. Junkyard
Wars is a dream show for an engineer. Two teams of four
people are pitted against each other to build almost any machine
or vehicle you can think of out of junk in only ten hours. Junkyard
Wars is the American version of a British show called Scrapheap
Challenge, and is entering its second season in the colonies.
Not only is the show entertaining, it is also educational, especially
when the hosts explain the basic physics and engineering principles
behind the designs. As an instructor of the freshman engineering
design and graphics course at Virginia Tech, I often referred
to the show in class, using it to inspire creativity and imagination
in my students who, for the most part, had little if any hands-on
experience with mechanical devices prior to coming to Virginia
I was more
than happy to accept the Junkyard Wars invitation.
Not only am I a big fan of the show, I am also, as my colleagues
have pointed out on numerous occasions, a media hog. Whenever
my class projects, such as the edible car or egg-launcher, ended
in competition, I made sure the local newspapers and TV stations
covered the events. As a tenure-track professor, I realized what
an important component outreach is for tenure, and being short
on time just like every engineering professor, I hoped to kill
two birds with one stone. A chance to be seen and heard on Junkyard
Wars was an opportunity to reach many would-be engineers
and show them that engineering is not just about abstract theories,
but also involves teamwork and innovation. Plus it's just
plain fun. With an audience of approximately 1.4 million, I would
in one fell swoop reach more young men and women than I would
over the rest of my academic career. I could not get to the studio
in Los Angeles fast enough.
I was reminded
of my Junkyard Wars experience and the power of the
media at the recent ASEE national conference in Albuquerque. I,
like many of my colleagues, was somewhat taken aback by plenary
speaker Dean Kamen's charge that engineering professors are
not pulling their weight when it comes to reaching out to primary
and secondary students and trying to interest them in engineering
careers. I know that personally I am overextended with commitments
to the Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, and engineering summer camps, all
designed to attract a diverse group of men and women to engineering.
And I am not alone and not special. All of my tenure-track colleagues
are equally overextended. I agree with Mr. Kamen that this nation
is at a critical crossroads in attracting bright young men and
women into engineering. Although college engineering enrollments
are up slightly, they will not meet the nation's need for
technical workers in the future. I think almost all engineering
professors are aware of the shortage of engineers, and most engineering
professors I know are involved in outreach in some way. While
Mr. Kamen's FIRST program is admirable, it is not the only
engineering outreach program in the nation, and efforts by organizations
like NSF, NEA, and ASEE should not be so cavalierly dismissed.
The problem in attracting young men and women to engineering is
not that engineering professors aren't committed to outreach,
it is the dissemination of informationthe publicity if you
willof just what engineers do and what programs are available.
We as engineering
educators need to become smarter about using the media to represent
us, not as geeky nerds who sit at a computer all day but as creative
professionals on the cutting edge of technology. Engineers suffer
from many undeserved stereotypes, and our field of expertise is
not typically well represented in the media. There is no question
that today's youth identify with the role models they are
exposed to every day, whether it is in school or on television.
The sad truth is, in either case, they are for the most part not
exposed to engineers. Television shows like Junkyard Wars
help to change this situation, but engineers, both in industry
and academia, need to be more proactive in seeking out media opportunities
to promote engineering. We must face the fact that to reach students,
we must use the medium they are most familiar withtelevision.
Local outreach programs are needed, but if the general public,
and more important, primary and secondary schools, don't
know what exciting engineering opportunities are available, we're
not going to have enough engineers in the future.
engineering professors typically have no training in public relations
and marketing. I am fortunate because the public relations division
of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering has good media contacts
and is very aggressive in publicizing research projects and outreach
efforts. Professors, engineering colleges across the nation, and
industry need to learn on a much larger scale how to promote engineering
as challenging, exciting, rewarding, and fun. Becoming media-hogs
and building bridges with the media, including through educational
programs like Junkyard Wars, is critical to attracting
young people to the field.
Cummings is currently on leave from Virginia Tech while she finishes
her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.