Humans learn with their hands and, it turns out, electrical engineers are humans. Most of us fondly recall "experiments" we did that made electrical engineering our destiny. But what of the current generation? Have apps deadened the EE in the way video killed the radio star? I am happy to report that the answer, for one future EEs at least, is a resounding "power up!"
For some strange reason, my oldest son thinks EE is a great career path. Maybe its my incessent blabbing about it, but there has to be more. My freshman class had 2000 declared engineers but only 500 that made the junior year programs. Why? I think the answer lies in hands-on. Engineering isn't something you just dream about; its something you do. With your hands. When you literally feel it you know its yours.
To feel it you have to do real projects with raw parts. Two of my favorites from my childhood were my rocket sled and my hydrogen separation experiment. (Warning: DO NOT ATTEMPT THESE AT HOME. Sometimes I wonder how I survived...) My rocket sled idea was born from winter doledrums and boredom from building rockets that just went up. One icy New York day, I cut runners from a Coke can, glued them to a rocket tube with three stabalizing fins and lunched it across our frozen lawn. It worked! I then added wings to see if would lift a bit and, well, I'll leave that next part for another time.
The other experiment was more of a "learning experience." Having seen the apparatus for splitting hydrogen and oxygen from water in school, I decided to build one for myself. I decided to go cheap: a beaker, two 0.5m lengths of bellwire, and a wall outlet. The EMF blew the wires out of the socket and vaporized half of the insulation. Lesson learned. These and other "experiments" led me to create a novel solution leveraging a very fast (at the time) disk response and self-modifying code to fit an application on a BBC Acorn that could not possibly fit because I could "feel" the solution.
So what of this generation of internet kids? Is there hope? Well, I can proudly say for one aspiring engineer, there is.
My 17-year-old son Zach wants to be an EE and I'm proud of that. He knows my stories and, as his dad, I can't just say "burn an eyebrow" but secretly... He started with elaborate paper designs: a back-pack personal flyer, a car powered by a flywheel, and more. And then the "experiments" came. First was the tablet computer made from disassembling an old Macbook and then the bottoms-up assembly of his PC. All good, but no smoke.
Then came the video game cabinet. This was a big one. He had to research the construction, buy the components, then WIRE the system, and then configure the computer. Yes, wire it. Together, we designed and built the cabinet. Then we got the wire-strippers and soldering iron out and made some smoke. Yes, that made me proud, but that wasn't it the turning point. That started yesterday when he spent hours doggedly tracking down all the software components needed to configure Ubuntu to run M.A.M.E. but the real lesson came when he found one of the joysticks didn't work. He diagnosed which wires were cross-coupled and fixed them with my grandfather's screwdrivers. A fourth-generation engineer was born yesterday in smoke and debug. I could not be more proud.
Today, Zach is back in school working through his classes and I'm back at work but the world has changed in a subtle but substantial way. I had a convesation with one of Cadence's R&D managers today where we shared the magic of the "oh wow" moment and how he drives this with his children's Mindstorms Robotics league as well as his own team. Facebook has guaranteed that Zach is having the same conversation with his friends. Where there is smoke, there is fire in the belly of the aspiring engineer.
Now back to our regurlarly scheduled verification blog already in progress. (Thank you for indulging one exceedingly proud poppa. :-) )
(P.S. If folks want references to the cabinet construction, M.A.M.E, and/or what Zach did to get it running on the ancient PC hosting Ubuntu I can probably get a guest blogger to post a comment. :-) )
Just a quick update: Zach decided on MechE (sigh, where did I go wrong? ;-) ) with a likely minor in CompE (whew!!). He'll be attending UMASS Lowell as an Honors Student in fall 2013. =Zach's Dad :-)