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Engineers don't get enough respect

THE UNITED STATES -- and our own region in particular -- is losing its status as the world's technological innovator, and we will face major consequences if we do not take action.

Our economy will suffer as we move from independent innovators to dependent consumers. Our security will be in question if we outsource development of technologies designed to keep our country safe. And our lives will be altered by people in other countries and cultures who are creating technologies that do not fit our unique needs and desires. We must teach our children to be technologically literate, to understand how things work. Our children's future is at stake.

According to the US Department of Education, in 2003 only 17 percent of degrees from American colleges and universities were in science or engineering. Our children are not learning the engineering skills they need. Studies tell us that we can maintain our reputation as a technological superpower if we ''produce" more scientists and engineers.

Massachusetts has led the way by becoming first in the nation in 2001 to develop curriculum frameworks for engineering at all levels, from kindergarten through 12th grade. In addition, science and engineering/technology will be an MCAS requirement starting with students graduating in 2010. But before we can graduate scientists and engineers, we must first engage children in science, technology, and engineering, igniting and then fostering their natural curiosity about how things work.

I was shocked when I arrived in the United States from Greece in 1980 to discover how misunderstood and undervalued engineering was among Americans and how little people knew about it. In the United States the engineering profession has suffered from an image problem. People who drive trains, collect trash, and fix VCRs are all called ''engineers." But the engineers I refer to are the people who build things -- from bicycles to bridges -- and make them work. Engineering, the process that creates technology, involves identifying a problem, designing a solution, testing and improving the design, and building the technology.

Engineers are responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the things we deal with every day, from the cars we drive to the cellphones we use. To address this image problem, we need to help people in our country, starting with children, to appreciate the role engineers play in the world.

The good news is that children are born engineers. A child exhibits an instinct to design and build when constructing a fort out of blankets and pillows or a castle out of sand. We need to harness this natural ability and make technology and engineering exciting in a way that is equally inspiring to boys and girls.

At the Museum of Science we have worked to develop curriculums that meet both state and national standards -- while fostering children's innate engineering skills. One program engages elementary school students in building their own water filters, windmills, walls, and bridges. More than 70 teachers and some 1,400 pupils across Massachusetts benefit from this program. This fall the curriculum will be field-tested in California, Minnesota, Colorado, and Florida.

To advance technological literacy among our children, it is essential that we remain vigilant about updating our schools' science curriculums so that students learn lessons about the human-made world as well as the natural world, while also experiencing the relevance of technology in their daily lives. Isn't it as important to teach our children about how a car or a computer works as how a volcano erupts? I believe we need both.

The growing awareness of our children's lack of interest in science has prompted the Museum of Science to reexamine how best to fulfill its responsibility to engage children in science and engineering. I challenge parents, public officials, and business and industry leaders to give our kids the opportunity to explore the human-made world -- to discover how a solar collector works, why popcorn pops, or who creates their iPod. By inspiring the children of today in such explorations, we will help build the innovators and thinkers of tomorrow.

Ioannis Miaoulis is director and president of the Museum of Science, Boston.

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