Where Are Our Young Scientists and Engineers?
By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.
For The Sunday Gazette
when I wrote about globalization, I noted that whereas 30 years ago the
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.
then, is an attempt to keep my promise.
that the three greatest factors that influence whether a young person
career in science, mathematics, or engineering are parents, teachers,
books. I rank parents first because they are the ones who get the first
to identify aptitude. Teachers and books come next, sometimes in one
sometimes the other. Let me elaborate on each.
friends John Harnden and Thurston Sack at the Edison Exploratorium like
point out, this area is the original “Tech Valley.”
So there is no shortage of older engineers and scientists in these
and there are still many in their prime working or teaching at places
G.E. Global Research Center, the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory,
Plug Power, Environment One, RPI, Union College, the University at
many other sites. And most are parents or grandparents of young boys
who might be guided, urged, or persuaded to embark on a technological
If you are such a person, then the first thing I recommend is that you
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.),
metallographer at the GE Materials and Processing Lab. Long before the
became common, he often brought the 8- to
version of me to his lab to observe and learn. More often than not, I
wander into the adjoining lab to watch colorful chemicals flow from one
to another. While there, a nice man named Markley regularly gave me
some old U.S.
that are still the highlight of my dormant collection. And I was
the Nobel prizewinner Irving Langmuir long before I learned what a
honor a Nobel Prize was.
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
Erector set, too, (“Meccano” set to Brits,
competitive brand still being sold). But somehow that did not tempt me
aspire to be a mechanical engineer despite my fascination with Elektro
robot at the 1939-40 New York
World’s Fair. (Sadly, Elektro died of lung
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,
major to choose. I liked to draw, so I gave some consideration to
thinking that I could design the world’s most beautiful bridge. But I
a 5-year program because the $800 per year tuition was a hardship for
even when diluted by my $250 per year State
years would be enough.
I don’t think I considered
mathematics, as much as I loved it, because I had not yet formulated a
to be any kind of academic, universities being the only place that I
paid people to do math. (This was long before the birth of computer
> “I want to
in chemistry,” said I.
“But chemists are a
dime a dozen,” said EDR Sr., “take chemical engineering.” But the only
that brought to my mind was that of an ugly oil refinery. So I
majored in physics, a decision I have never regretted. (Whew! I just
no new refinery has been built in this country in decades.)
business of trying to interest youth in science or engineering is not
easier by television. There are plenty of series about doctors,
businessmen with bad hair, so no wonder the schools that train them are
prospering, especially since they now (commendably), admit women to
hallowed halls. But the only kind of science on major networks is the
science” of shows like CSI-(fill in the city), that love to show
living color, inside information that I could do without. (Of course,
always Star Trek on cable.)
is neither a natural or unnatural science, but the only series about
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
protagonist uses is statistics, but I find the show unfulfilling
is never enough detail presented to give me confidence that he knows
what he is
my high school and college education, I had many fine teachers. The
influential with regard to my career choice was Mother Mary Leo at CCHS
(“Mother” being the
honorific corresponding to “Monsignor” for priests).
She taught all the courses considered highly
challenging—advanced algebra, solid geometry, physics, and German.
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
matrix theory and differential calculus, the latter making my first
at RPI a breeze.
still nuns, of course, but not nearly as many, and when they venture
public, it is not their habit to identify themselves. But the lay
science and math in our high schools today do their best to inculcate a
their subjects in their students. We just have to find a way to get
more of our
children to their table.
having left books for last, so about all I can do is to recommend that
books about math, science, or engineering to children. There are now a
of popular books on the first two subjects that are accessible to high
students; Barnes and Noble in Niskayuna
three bays of them. The works of Ian Stewart or Martin Gardner would be
wonderful. The pickings for engineering are much slimmer, but try
Henry Petroski. I just bought his “Small Things Considered: Why There
Henry is wrong. But if “Intelligent Design” is perfect, then God must
great sense of humor. How else explain a hippopotamus?
Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna
and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.