Friday, October 12, 2007

Engineering the Future

I know I'm not alone in my concern for the future of science and especially engineering in America. It seems that so few young people are interested, and that with the test-score-driven agenda required by "no child left behind," it seems that most kids are not getting to do the kind of exploration and imaginative activities that might help them believe that science and technology are really exciting and potentially fulfilling things to pursue.

That's one of the reasons I do space-inspired educational outreach events, hoping to spark some interest in science and technology for at least a few kids. I'm doing a middle school astronomy event tonight with a couple of my astronomy club and Solar System Ambassador colleagues, so I was thinking last night about some things to talk about on my virtual tour of the solar system. With recent Cassini radar findings of even more hydrocarbon (ethane/methane) lakes on chilly Titan, I plan to talk about the idea that Titan, like Mars, Venus, and the Moon, is a place we humans have been. We've landed robot eyes on those places (and human ones on the Moon) and had a look around. Of course we've also driven around Mars with Spirit and Opportunity, and looked at more and more of Mars with high resolution orbital cameras, making the red planet seem even more like the distinctive and increasingly familiar place that it truly is. We've flown close to even more places in the solar system, and the point is, they are places, not just abstract ideas or points in the sky.

To me this is up-close involvement through mostly robotic eyes is exciting stuff, even though as a child of the Apollo era, I thought there would be human eyes and footprints in more of those places by now. But no matter. We're stepping out into the solar system, we've set some goals, we're even seeing private companies start to move toward space. It may not be happening as fast or in quite the way some of us would like to see, but it's happening, and thanks to the internet and other technologies, we can have a ringside seat on the next frontier. Why more people aren't excited about this and wanting to be involved in this and many other scientific and technological developments, I don't know. Too many other distractions, I guess.

But this past week I learned about two engineering education programs that give me reason to be a little more optimistic. One is a high school and middle school curriculum for engineering called Project Lead the Way (PLTW). It's all about hands-on learning and problem solving and it is already in a number of schools all over the US. The other is a new engineering school, the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. This is a small school (around 300 students so far) but the exciting thing is that it is taking a truly innovative approach to engineering education and to preparing the next generation of engineers and leaders for our technological society. Founded in 2001, it's already rates as one of the top schools in the country.

The picture at the top is courtesy JPL, showing in false color all the areas of Titan's north pole that have been explored by Cassini's radar. I added the Google Earth inset image of the northeastern USA as a scale reference - it's approximate but pretty close. Those hydrocarbon lakes are big.

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