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February 15, 2008

A World Without Engineering?

EngineeringIn making the case for more research funding, scientists often ask a simple question: what would the world be like without scientific advancement? Ioannis Miaoulis, the president of the Boston Museum of Science, asked a different, though related question, to a packed hall of attendees last night: what would the world look like without engineering?

Very different, of course. There would be no chairs, no microphones, no glasses, no buildings, Miaoulis said, drawing upon the setting. And most of the listeners in the auditorium wouldn't be there either, he said, because without the engineering of drugs and vaccines, the average life expectancy of people would be 27.

Miaoulis has given this talk hundreds of times, to great effect. He led a successful movement in the 1990s to introduce engineering into Massachusetts's K-12 education standards. His favorite line to press for more technological education, even if it means cutting down on some traditional science instruction, is this: "How often does a kid find himself in a volcano as compared to a car?" 

Miaoulis has been pointing out for years that technology has been overlooked in school because the standard curriculums of today are rooted in the educational ideas of the late 19th century. Then, he said, the main technology that society cared about was agricultural in nature. There was no need to teach that technology at school because kids learned it within the farming communities in which they were raised.

Miaoulis's speeches get folksier and funnier all the time as he collects new examples of American society's general ignorance about what engineering is and what engineers do. When I wrote a profile of Miaoulis a few years ago, he told me about the janitor's closet at the National Academy of Engineering that bore the sign "Engineering." Last night, he delighted the audience with a new story of how he and his wife were at a hotel recently and had to call the front desk to report a plumbing issue in the bathroom. The receptionist told them that an engineer would be over shortly to fix the problem. "Here we go again," Miaoulis's wife said.

--Yudhijit Bhattacharjee


I am an electronics engineer, and i have to say, that whatever effort to educate people on what engineering is, should be encouraged. We don't have people like this nearly enough. I mean, future engineers are going to take over once, the current generation retires, and it an helluva interesting field.