One of the activities I find a great deal of joy and pride doing is going out to schools and talking to young people about engineering. Remembering back to when I was school aged, I had absolutely no idea what an engineer actually did. I figured it had something to do with math, but what I hadn't a clue about the scope of the job.
Even through college, I didn't actually understand what it meant to be an engineer. Sure, I learned all of the tools, the programming langauges, the data structures. But I don't believe I was ever introduced to the Art of Engineering. Thinking back on it, its really kind of a shame. There were some skills I should have aquired back then that would have been very useful. I ended up learning many of these skills along the way in my professional life. How much easier it would have been to start with them already developed.
The Art of Engineering, in my opinion, is best described as Exploration, Quantification, and Communication. When you start on a project, you spend lots of time Exploring different possibilities, approaches, problems, and solutions. At some undefined point, you end up needing to Quantify your explorations to help break your problem down into tasks, algorithms, parameters, and restrictions. And finally, and really most importantly, you need to Communicate your design, either to the computer in the form of a well structured program, a schematic diagram, or as documentation to the rest of your team.
I know a lot of engineers. Some are really good, some are not. From my observations, the good engineers are the ones that can Communicate extremely well, can Quantify their designs in a way that others can understand, and have done a good job Exploring the problems at hand. They understand and can practice the Art extremely well. Its their ability to Communicate that makes them leaders in their field. They are able to set directions for their group, their company, and even their industry by effectively communciating their designs and ideas to others.
There is a large class of engineers who have lots of skills, but are not effective in the Art. They are not effective because they don't Communicate well. When you can't communicate well, it makes gathering good ideas and information from others very difficult. It makes Exploring the problem difficult, because you are limited in the information you have available. I know a lot of technically competent engineers who get burned out and frustrated because their ideas are rarely accepted by others. Many of these ideas are probably very sound technology, but the missing ability to communicate the ideas to others engineers.
I would like to expose every student to the Art of Engineering. I would like them to understand the world of opportunities available to those who can engineer things. Rather than being the followers of instructions, engineers are the authors, the inventors, the creators. We create the products and the processes that others use. We are the solvers of problems without answers.
I call on all of my fellow engineers to share your experiences and expertise, especially to students. Find a classroom full of kids, 5th-9th graders, and share with them what you do, what skills you need for your job, and how cool your engineering job is. Share with them your excitement and your passion for the field you are in. It really does make a difference.