Monday, January 12, 2009

Children continue to say "no" to engineering

There's yet another survey out reporting on the ongoing decline of interest in engineering with American children.  This particular survey was sponsored by the American Society for Quality.  The bit that really stuck out to me: "More girls say their parents are likely to encourage them to become an actress than the number who say their parents are likely to encourage them to become an engineer." 

When I was a kid, we had all sorts of construction toys: Lego, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, Erector.  Most of these are still around today, but there's something decidedly different about them.  Of course, part of it is that they've been made "cheaper": Tinkertoys are now plastic instead of wood, and the old metal Erector sets are all-but-gone (I understand that there's a French company that sells them at exobitant prices), and there's a plastic analog called "Meccano" that is similar but not nearly the same.  Aside from the cheapening of the quality, though, the change I notice more is the "dumbing down", especially of Lego. 

When I first started with Lego, most of the sets consisted of large numbers of relatively ordinary blocks.  You could build just about anything with them, provided you had the creativity to figure out how.  Nowadays, it's very hard to find kits like these.  Virtually all of the Lego kits available for sale in most stores today have far fewer parts, and many of those parts are specialized to the building of one or two specific models, usually a reproduction of some thing from a movie or TV show or similar.  Because the parts are so specialized, and there are so few of them in the kit, really all you can do with the kit is build the one or two designs that it's been made to reproduce.  The child has been reduced from an engineer who designs and builds creations of their own design, to an assembly line worker, tasked to reproduce a design created by someone else. 

Another thing I remember from my youth were the "n in 1" electronic experimenter kits, which had a bunch of electronic components attached to a fiberboard base with connecting terminals between them, and a large supply of wires so you could interconnect them.  The kits also came with a book full of circuits you could build that would do various interesting things, often with suggestions for variations that one could experiment with.  I haven't seen one of these in a store in a long while, although I think you can still get them from a few online merchants.

Of course, this is chicken and egg to some degree; the demand for these sorts of toys is down because children are not interested in such toys, but interest in such toys is going to remain low as long as they're not available.  I think a large part of this is the change in strategies for marketing to children that took place starting in the seventies.  By the mid-eighties virtually all children's toys were tied in some way to a movie or a TV show.  And there just aren't many movies and TV shows that feature engineers, for some reason. 

I recall reading an article a while back about how something like half of all students in China are studying to become engineers.  It's at most 15 percent in the United States, if the ASQ survey is to be believed.  Says something about the direction our two countries are going, doesn't it?

One of the consequences of the explosion of the Internet has been to make being into "technology" cool once again, at least.  And it can't go without notice that the third richest man in the United States got there, at least in part, by being a geek.  So maybe this generation of kids will be more inclined to turn toward careers in technology, and not just in using it.  We can only hope.

(Inspired by this post by Dan KB6NU.)