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Gail Vida Hamburg

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Engineers Rule!

Posted: 11/18/11 10:58 AM ET

By page 41 of Walter Isaacson's important biography of Steve Jobs, I wanted immediately to score some LSD to replicate Mr. Jobs experience, which he called, a profound experience and one of the most important things in his life. "It reinforced my sense of what was important -- creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could," he said. Between Jobs' LSD and Proust's petite madeleines, one could surely achieve sartori and self-actualization, I felt.

By page 526, after reading Jobs' intention in designing the iPad "I would love to help quality journalism... we need real reporting and editorial insight more than ever," I longed (as a former journalist who left print just before it keeled over and died) for an iPad 3. Who knew the iPad wasn't just a giant iPhone?

Jobs' divine madness; his and chief designer, Jony Ive's Bauhaus-Zen aesthetics, the complex simplicity or simple complexity depending on your gaze; and Apple's striving for elegance through engineering are central themes in the book. You can't help but fall in love with their products after reading about the creativity, the intelligence, the soul, the oblique thinking, the pain, the craziness, the heart, the effort, and the river of tears (Jobs cried like no grown man I know) that went into each iconoclastic collaboration. Victims of Jobs' verbal eviscerations and cruelty abound -- many were sacrificed at Jobs' alter of perfection or flung into the rubbish heap of his ingratitude.

But by the end of the book, I felt that the engineers who helped make Apple, and Jobs' animation company, Pixar, "insanely great" (his favorite superlative), indeed all engineers and the field of engineering, ought to be better known, if we are to get American schoolchildren interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and inspire them to pursue higher science education and careers in these fields.

In a February 2011 'tech titans' meeting with President Obama, Jobs explained why he had employed 700,000 factory workers in China -- because he needed 30,000 engineers on-site to support those workers. "You can't find that many Americans to hire... these factory engineers did not have to be PhDs or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing. Tech schools, community colleges, or trade schools could train them," he said. "If you could educate these engineers, we could move more manufacturing plants here," he told the President, who, over the following month, told his aides: "We've got to find ways to train those 30,000 manufacturing engineers that Jobs told us about."

STEM education is not doing anything near what it's supposed to do. Ask kids to name their favorite scientists and they still name Einstein. Ask kids to name their favorite engineers and the answer is silence. In the race to the future and the brave new world of technology, we have not yet learned to surrender the memorabilia of long ago whether it's dinosaurs and mummies in museums, or cultural staples. Jobs recalled his tour of Istanbul led by a Turkish historian: "The professor explained how the coffee was made very different from anywhere else, and I realized, "So f*&%$#@ what? The young people in Istanbul were like kids everywhere else, they were all using cell phones..." There is also a troubling gender gap in the field -- young girls' general lack of interest in STEM explains why few major in science in college, and why women are still rarefied hothouse orchids in these disciplines.

As a producer of STEM exhibitions for science and natural history museums, and the K-12 schoolchildren who visit them, I am focused on deconstructing and interpreting science through immersive museum experiences using high-touch interactives and deep-feel storytelling. I'm now integrating STEM curriculum into Economia: Money Matters, an exhibition on personal finance to open in science and natural history museums in Fall 2012, and completing development of Pure Elegance: The Wonder of Mathematics and Brave New World: The Exhibition Of Technology and Trends, both slated for science museums in 2013.

The challenge for exhibition producers like me is to make STEM exciting and entertaining for museum visitors, especially children on school field trips, and to compete with expensive Hollywood branded tripe. How do we get schoolchildren interested in STEM? One way to teach STEM to young Americans -- avid consumers of technology lifestyle products, all -- is to tell them the interesting, enthralling, and yes, 'action hero' stories of the invisible profession -- the engineers behind the tools, products, machines, technology, social media, and apps that rule and shape so much of their lives.

To read Isaacson's tome is to get a glimpse of luminous engineering minds: from Steve Wozniak at early Apple to Phil Schiller, Jon Rubinstein, and Tony Faddell. The latter three were responsible for the hardware of the anodized brick that delivers a favorite song -- so a teen can go to the dark side of the moon, or the bright side of the sun, or step back from the edge of peril. The iPhone, that allows youth everywhere to protect their secret lives from their helicopter parents, would not have been possible without the engineering solutions of Professors John Elias and Wayne Westerman of the University of Delaware who developed multi-touch sensing capabilities, Corning Glass CEO, Wendell Weeks who created the near indestructible "gorilla glass" for the phone, and Apple's in-house engineering team headed by Schiller, Rubinstein and Fadell. Corning's Weeks told the truculent Jobs upon meeting him for the first time, "Will you shut up and let me teach you some science?"

Mr. Jobs, had he lived, meant to revolutionize education through digital learning, as he'd already revolutionized music, publishing, mobile communications, and film animation. It would have been his magnum opus.

Let's keep an eye on the engineers and tell their stories -- they're working on insanely great stuff.

 
 
 

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