16 April 2013

What can a student say to Congress about engineering education?

One of my projects over the last several months has been organizing a small delegation of undergraduate students from the university IEEE section to attend the Congressional Visits Day in Washington, DC. CVD is an opportunity for technical professionals to speak to their representatives about the importance of funding education and research in science, engineering and technology fields.

I attended a couple years ago, and I was struck that the bulk of participants were men, either in senior positions in their careers or retired. I think that's a strong demographic to speak on the need for developing engineers and technical capability, but I think it's important for students, actively engaged in their engineering education, to speak up about their experiences. The first hand perspective of someone going through an engineering curriculum offers an insight into what students are experiencing now, rather than a rehash of more, shall we say, historic time frames.

Another reason I think taking the students is to make sure they're exposed to the realities outside their field. In the 112th Congressional Class, there are six engineers and three other scientists out of all the representatives on the Hill, and they're all in the House. That's the same number of accountants, and less than a third of the lawyers. (Stats here.) Without no science background, there's a tremendous amount of information that's easy to glaze over and misunderstand. As engineers, we have a responsibility to look at the factors that feed our technical capacity and recognize the impact that decisions for the short term will have years down the line. We need to make the technological contributions accessible and show the impact clearly, in terms of jobs, money and the metrics that our representatives are interested in.

IEEE has some great resources, and I'm pleased that the students I took did so well. However, the budget changes every year, and things only seem to be getting more expensive. It's critical to remember that this isn't a one-shot effort.


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