PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999

by David Brindley

What’s in a Name

About the only thing professional engineers and locomotive engineers have in common is a name. But have you ever stopped to consider why? Sure, mechanical engineers may design engines, but it's the locomotive engineers who actually drive them. And therein lies the answer.

In 1847 a group of English railway engineers felt that the Institution of Civil Engineers, the established professional engineers of the day, was uninterested in the new breed of engineers that came from the development of railways. So the group formed the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which for a number of years was run solely by locomotive engineers—the people who ran the train engines. Eventually, though, that organization came to represent only mechanical engineers who had passed professional courses. And those who run the trains in England are now called "locomotive drivers." In the United States, however, the name has persisted.

But don't try changing the name from train engineer to driver here, advises John Bentley, spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers based in Cleveland, Ohio. "It's an insult to call us drivers." As he explains it, "there isn't even a steering wheel in a train, so you can't possibly 'drive' it."

In fact, when asked why locomotive engineers were called just that, Bentley considered the question and confided that it had never come up before.

After mulling over the question, though, Bentley countered: "I could turn the question around and ask 'Why are you called engineers?' Who are you guys? You're the new kids on the block." He was now on a roll and couldn't be derailed: "Everyone has a picture in mind of a friendly train engineer going across the country in a striped hat and red bandana. We may not wear that anymore, but we are still an American icon."

And in case anyone doubted, Bentley concluded, "We're here to stay."

Schools Don Lobbying Hats

The brouhaha in Congress this fall over the federal science budget was still going on when Prism went to press. Proposed funding cuts for scientific research are raising serious concerns among many in the science, engineering, and technology community—and not just about this year, but what they mean for the future as well. A number of universities that rely heavily on federal funds have reacted by putting on their lobbying hats.

Under a bill considered by the House of Representatives, the White House's request for funding for NASA would have been cut by about $1 billion, the National Science Foundation by $285 million, and the Department of Energy's science programs by $116 million. According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, cuts to the NSF and DOE research programs alone would have resulted in the elimination of 14,000 jobs in research, science and mathematics at universities across the nation.

"One has to wonder whether the people designing these budgets spent too much time watching Fred Flintstone and not enough time watching the Jetsons," John Podesta, White House Chief of Staff, said in a recent speech.

Perhaps fed up with the pushing and pulling of the annual budget debate, more and more universities are lobbying Congress directly for science funding. By getting Congress to appropriate, or "earmark," funds in the budget for their institutions, colleges can also bypass federal foundations and institutes, like NSF, that award grants based on competitive, merit-based reviews.

The practice of pulling directly on Congress' purse strings for earmarks, and forgoing peer review in the process, is frowned upon by the Association of American Universities. But the prospect of receiving federal money more quickly than NSF can award it is a powerful incentive.

And if wrangling over the budget gets worse, doorbells may start ringing all over Congress.

"This country is in an incredible time period. The advances in technology are really quite breathtaking. Is everyone getting a chance to benefit? The answer is really no."

 - Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, announcing that he would spend $1 billion over the next 20 years to finance collge scholarships - iincluding graduate work in education, math, science, and engineering - for financially needy minority students.

Auction Options

Hey buddy, wanna buy a patent? Don't laugh, that's the premise behind a new Internet auction site where inventors can flog their intellectual property patents, trademarks, or copyrights to the highest bidder. is the creation of inveterate inventor Byron Donzis, who holds more than 200 patents on ideas ranging from pharmaceuticals to sports equipment. Donzis started his Web site five months ago with the goal of linking inventors and their ideas with buyers who can turn those ideas into tangible products.

The site is modeled after eBay, the enormously successful online auction house that brings together millions of users around the world to buy and sell their goods through individual auctions. Sellers on pay a fee to display their inventions, and anyone interested in buying a particular invention has only to register and then post a bid. Once a sale is complete, Donzis wins by charging the buyer and the seller a commission ranging from 8 percent to 20 percent, depending on the final price of the item. The site boasts 93 categories, from advertising to windows, and lists more than 250 patents, trademarks, and even Internet domain names.

So far, though, only two sales have been completed. That may be due to the nature of the inventions for sale, which range from the odd to the esoteric. Under the category of engineer/science, for example, the patent for a Techoptimizer—an "innovative software tool designed to work with engineers and scientists in resolving engineering problems at a conceptual level"—is up for sale. Perhaps not surprisingly, no bids have been placed.

You can also bid on a patent for the "Millennium Bug." Act quickly though, because the patent is for a toy that is designed to go haywire on New Year's Eve. Going, going, gone!

ACT Up, Interest Down

Forget about dumb and dumber. High school students are getting smart and smarter. At least that's according to the latest results from the ACT college placement and entrance exam.

The national average score on the ACT exam, which assesses high school students' educational level, increased from 20.6 (out of a possible 36) in 1989 to 21.0 in 1999. That represents the first time ACT scores rose significantly over the course of a decade since the exam was first administered in 1959.

But while high school students planning to pursue engineering degrees in college are scoring even higher than the national average on the ACT, there is a disturbing lack of interest in engineering among students in general.

The nearly 66,000 high school students who said they wanted to study engineering in college scored an average of 22.6 on the ACT exam, compared with 21 for the national average. Those planning on studying bioengineering or bio-medical engineering scored the highest among the engineering specialties, with an average of 26.2, followed by engineering physics with 25.4.

The total number of students interested in engineering, though, is only 7 percent of the more than 1 million high school students who took the ACT exam. The number of students pursuing computer-related careers is even smaller— about 4 percent of all those tested— although that number is up from last year's 3 percent. In contrast, the most popular subjects among college-bound students are medicine (19 percent) and business (11 percent), followed by undecided (10 percent).

Meanwhile, the Labor Department projects that the demand for computer engineers will double between 1996 and 2006, ranking it as the second-fastest-growing occupation in the country.

"We might serve ourselves better," says Richard Ferguson, ACT president, "if we communicated more up-to-date information about the labor market and the job outlook to high school students so they can make more informed career choices."

Students may be getting smarter, but it's apparently not getting any easier to attract them to engineering.