Where Are Our Young Scientists and Engineers?



For The Sunday Gazette


 In May, when I wrote about globalization, I noted that whereas 30 years ago the United States was the third largest producer of engineering graduates, it is now 17th. We are hemorrhaging the very jobs that we need to maintain our technological competitiveness. And I said that I had some ideas that I would convey in a later piece on how we, even locally, could help to do something about this. This, then, is an attempt to keep my promise.

I believe that the three greatest factors that influence whether a young person chooses a career in science, mathematics, or engineering are parents, teachers, and books. I rank parents first because they are the ones who get the first chance to identify aptitude. Teachers and books come next, sometimes in one order, sometimes the other. Let me elaborate on each.

<>As my friends John Harnden and Thurston Sack at the Edison Exploratorium like to point out, this area is the original “Tech Valley.” So there is no shortage of older engineers and scientists in these environs, and there are still many in their prime working or teaching at places like the G.E. Global Research Center, the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, Intermagnetics, Plug Power, Environment One, RPI, Union College, the University at Albany, and many other sites. And most are parents or grandparents of young boys and girls who might be guided, urged, or persuaded to embark on a technological career. If you are such a person, then the first thing I recommend is that you bring your child to work now and then.

Though he died 29 years ago, I retain the “Jr.” in my name in honor of my dad, Edwin D. Reilly (Sr.), a metallographer at the GE Materials and Processing Lab. Long before the practice became common, he often brought the 8- to 12-year-old version of me to his lab to observe and learn. More often than not, I would wander into the adjoining lab to watch colorful chemicals flow from one retort to another. While there, a nice man named Markley regularly gave me some old U.S. stamps that are still the highlight of my dormant collection. And I was introduced to the Nobel prizewinner Irving Langmuir long before I learned what a significant honor a Nobel Prize was.

My interest in chemistry continued, and I still have the yellow case with dried out chemicals that occupied much of my middle childhood years. I still have my Erector set, too, (“Meccano” set to Brits, a competitive brand still being sold). But somehow that did not tempt me to aspire to be a mechanical engineer despite my fascination with Elektro the robot at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. (Sadly, Elektro died of lung cancer because he was a heavy smoker.)

As I neared the time to enter RPI, I had a conversation with my father, one that I recall most vividly, about what major to choose. I liked to draw, so I gave some consideration to architecture, thinking that I could design the world’s most beautiful bridge. But I resisted a 5-year program because the $800 per year tuition was a hardship for my family even when diluted by my $250 per year State scholarship. Four years would be enough.

I don’t think I considered mathematics, as much as I loved it, because I had not yet formulated a desire to be any kind of academic, universities being the only place that I thought paid people to do math. (This was long before the birth of computer science, of course.)
“I want to major in chemistry,” said I.

“But chemists are a dime a dozen,” said EDR Sr., “take chemical engineering.” But the only image that brought to my mind was that of an ugly oil refinery. So I compromised and majored in physics, a decision I have never regretted. (Whew! I just read that no new refinery has been built in this country in decades.)

This business of trying to interest youth in science or engineering is not made any easier by television. There are plenty of series about doctors, lawyers, and businessmen with bad hair, so no wonder the schools that train them are prospering, especially since they now (commendably), admit women to their hallowed halls. But the only kind of science on major networks is the “forensic science” of shows like CSI-(fill in the city), that love to show autopsies in living color, inside information that I could do without. (Of course, there’s always Star Trek on cable.)

Mathematics is neither a natural or unnatural science, but the only series about math ever shown is the CBS show “Numb3rs.” (Reversing the ‘e’ to form a 3 is an affectation like the reversed R of Toys R Us.) The principal math that the protagonist uses is statistics, but I find the show unfulfilling because there is never enough detail presented to give me confidence that he knows what he is doing.

Throughout my high school and college education, I had many fine teachers. The most influential with regard to my career choice was Mother Mary Leo at CCHS in Troy (“Mother” being the honorific corresponding to “Monsignor” for priests).  She taught all the courses considered highly challenging—advanced algebra, solid geometry, physics, and German. Then, as dessert for those she considered deserving, Mother Leo organized an after-school non-credit math course for the five seniors whom she had identified as prospective technophiles. Among other topics, we were taught matrix theory and differential calculus, the latter making my first such course at RPI a breeze.

There are still nuns, of course, but not nearly as many, and when they venture out in public, it is not their habit to identify themselves. But the lay teachers of science and math in our high schools today do their best to inculcate a love of their subjects in their students. We just have to find a way to get more of our children to their table.

I regret having left books for last, so about all I can do is to recommend that you give books about math, science, or engineering to children. There are now a plethora of popular books on the first two subjects that are accessible to high school students; Barnes and Noble in Niskayuna has three bays of them. The works of Ian Stewart or Martin Gardner would be wonderful. The pickings for engineering are much slimmer, but try anything by Henry Petroski. I just bought his “Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design.”

Perhaps Henry is wrong. But if “Intelligent Design” is perfect, then God must have a great sense of humor. How else explain a hippopotamus?


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.