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The Tentacle

October 30, 2007

An Engineer of Engineers

Nick Diaz

In recent years I've been doing some thinking, (an inherently dangerous activity), about my role as a veteran middle-school mathematics teacher. Most of my years with Frederick County Public Schools I spent in the classroom, in the act of attempting to teach kids from 10 to 14 years of age something about numbers and number relationships.

Tough thing to do, especially since the goal of almost every middle-school child seems to be purposely to forget anything and everything he's ever been taught by anyone outside of MTV or his peer group.

I grew up in a household dominated by professional educators. My mother was a teacher for over 35 years, ranging in scope from elementary to college; her mother, my "mormor," spent most of her life teaching lower elementary grades. My aunt was a long-time kindergarten teacher, and her daughter, a first cousin, taught mostly intermediate grades.

My grandfather ("morfar") was an elementary principal. Is it surprising then that I became a teacher? Of course not. It's in the genes, written in heaven, predetermined by the stars. What else could I do with my life?

I hardly know how to do anything else besides eating to ride, and riding to eat. My mother desperately wanted me to be an engineer, and she let me know that many, many times during my formative years. I kept saying, "Si, mama," as I got back to playing school with my teddy bears and such. Man, how I loved to boss those stuffed little guys around!

Panchito, my favorite bear, became quite adept at reciting the 27 Spanish letters, even before the ABC song came around. I drummed them into his fluff-stuffed brain, just like mama did to me. I'm just a natural teacher; that's what I do.

Not a single education-minded relative, however, ever went into the care and feeding of middle-grade students. I just had to be different. When asked what I do for a living, my reply is usually met with a combination of awe, surprise, commiseration, sympathy, and, generally speaking, a "You're nuts!" attitude.

Yes, one must be crazy to seek a profession whose goal is to attempt to ensure that middle schoolers learn how to read, write, and do mathematics, and, worse yet, to apply what they have learned. The term "child abuse" is defined as a teacher's attempt to persuade a student to read and think, and (gasp!) apply what he knows. I should've been hauled off to jail by now.

Years passed and I retired after 30 years with Frederick County Public Schools, only to drift my way back into mathematics education at a nearby independent school. I just can't get away from doing this kind of a job; it calls me. I just love the math, and I just laugh at, and with, the kids. I teach sixth and eighth graders at this school, and thoroughly enjoy the daily company of these young people - well, most of them anyway.

So what is my goal with them, my long-range goal? What kind of mathematics student do I want them to become? What kind of person do I want them to be in the future? How can I get the students to use the problem-solving skills I steadfastly (some may say stubbornly) ram into them in a useful, profitable, responsible manner, so that society benefits from their talents and academic preparation?

Simple: I'm introducing them to engineering careers. Contrary to my mom's wishes, I did not become a professional engineer; I have, however, arrived at the point where I see myself as "the engineer of engineers."

Statistics point to large number of engineers retiring these days; more engineers are retiring than entering the profession. This is a big problem for the future of American industry and commerce, the military, higher education, and, generally, our viability in the world economy.

The solution to this supply problem seems to be to spark the interest of more college students in engineering as a career choice. After thinking this through, I've concluded that it isn't that simple. The path to becoming an engineer is fundamentally different from that of an accountant or a health professional.

A student can decide to become an accountant during his college years. It matters little what the student's background was in high school, as long as grades were adequate at the time. A number of accounting majors may well be taking their first undergraduate accounting course during their sophomore or junior year, and still manage to graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Accounting.

A student can decide to become a physician well into his college years. Medical school generally begins right after college for most physician candidates, culminating for most students four years later in the awarding of the M.D. degree.

Engineering has entirely different timing and it is that difference that contributes to the chronic shortage of engineers in most disciplines.

The first degree in engineering is, like accounting, at the baccalaureate level; like medicine, strong grades are required to be considered for engineering schools. The unique thing about engineering is that students in that field must enter college with a fairly strict set of prior math and science courses.

Engineering schools give considerable weight to SAT scores and science grades. Achieving top scores on the math section of the SAT usually requires a grasp of pre-calculus. To prepare for the SAT, students must begin taking challenging math courses in the 7th and 8th grade, and continue developing their math skills throughout high school.

The hard truth is, if a student gets a late start in math and science courses, he will probably no longer be a candidate for engineering school. The student may be a very good candidate for accountancy or medicine; engineering school, however, is probably not a viable choice.

That boat has sailed.

It is this focus on the middle school years that makes mathematics education at this age level so important to the engineering profession in general. In addition to developing students' math skills, a dedicated mathematics educator will heighten student interest in mathematics at an early age.

With most high schools not requiring four years of math courses, it is extremely important that students develop an interest in mathematics during their middle school years. Otherwise, they are likely to take only the minimum courses required in high school, thus being unprepared to pursue an engineering degree in college, should they decide to do so.

After all these years, I think I've unknowingly fulfilled my late mother's ambition for me - that I pursue engineering as a career. I can point toward heaven and say to her, "Si, mama, I'm an engineer, after all - an engineer of engineers." A greater calling a man cannot have.

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