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Friday, April 26, 2013

Developing science and engineering majors

Last month I participated in the San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering, which touched more than 50,000 K-12 students interested in technical careers. In some ways, it was like a personal homecoming since the key event was the annual Greater San Diego Science & Engineering Fair, where I got my start as a pre-teen computer scientist and served for 12 years as a judge.

The supply of science and engineering college graduates is crucial on multiple levels. These are the students who grow up to be founders of high-tech startups — whether young entrepreneurs before or during college (as in Gates, Zuckerberg, Wozniak) or those that start a company after a few years of industry experience (as I did). You also need the engineers and scientists that work for these startups.

To follow up on one of the talks, I found an excellent resource for preparing K-12 students for science careers. But sending children to STEM college majors is not enough, as two articles demonstrated. One, in the New York Times, was entitled “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds”. A sequel, “Why Engineering Majors Change Their Minds,” was published at the Forbes website.

The upshot of these recommendations? Engineering is hard, the grades are lower than for easy majors, and the competition is particularly ruthless at the top school. (Berkeley comes to mind as a place that particularly likes to wash out engineering majors). They also note the deferred gratification: several years of lower division prep followed by the interesting stuff as a junior or senior.

To address this, Berkeley had my niece take a freshman engineering seminar to give her the big picture of what she was studying. I recall that my favorite (STEM) course freshman year — when I was still intending to be a EE — was taking the sophomore intro circuits class my first semester at MIT from a great teacher who later went on to be a IEEE Fellow.

A friend's son is hoping to join a top engineering program in 16 months, and so I’ve been giving his parents suggestions of how to think about picking a college and a career. One is to consider the top engineering teaching schools, like Harvey Mudd, Cal Poly, Olin or the military academies. (Or, if he goes to a top engineering research school, to join a professor’s lab as soon as possible). Other ideas include getting a summer job that involves working alongside engineers. Or, to do as my daughter is doing, attend a summer engineering program for high school students such as UC’s Cosmos.

Certainly what top students (and would-be entrepreneurs) need is an understanding of the technology and a curiosity to think about what that technology can do. For example, some Harvey Mudd students used their understanding of 3D printing to create a startup that makes custom iPhone cases (that can be self-printed or shipped).

Still, even with well-laid plans, there are plenty of opportunities to go astray, for the reasons identified by the NYT and Forbes. My friends who succeeded in engineering found a good job out of college (or as a summer job during college) that validated their choice and allowed them to reap the rewards of their long hard work.

In this era where the “new normal” is 8+% unemployment overall and 12+% for recent graduates, it seems more important than ever to find schools that find high demand for their graduates in the marketplace. Yes, some of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy — top schools attract top students who place well — but as a parent (or student) we want the best path to success. It’s great for students to take a direct path into entrepreneurship, but no one’s ROI on college investment should assume that lightning will strike during a four year window.

Finally, I advise every engineering student to do a business or econ minor (or even double major) — which will pay dividends in companies both big and small. I was blissfully unaware of business as an undergraduate, and had to do remedial education in night school to have a clue as to how to run my company. For business, I would recommend marketing, accounting, finance and general management. For econ, I'd recommend micro, if possible skip macro, and take managerial topics such as industrial/organizational econ, decision theory, law and economics or even econometrics or game theory.

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