I’ve never been able to come up with any association between Thanksgiving and engineering (Tension on a wishbone? Buckling of pumpkin pie crust?), so I figured I had a good excuse to take this week off from the blog. But then I read some engineering-flavored Thanksgiving news and decided that when offered inspiration I have to grab it.
It seems that among the many helium-filled advertisements for cartoons, fast food, and movies, this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will debut a new float: the “Girl-Powered Spinning Machine”, a Rube Goldberg-looking device, most likely powered by a bunch of telegenic girls, promoting the toy company GoldieBlox. For those who are unaware, GoldieBlox’s mission is to influence young girls into becoming engineers or joining other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professions. They do this by offering visually attractive “engineering”-type toys which are used in conjunction with story lines and characters that appeal to girls. For only the second time in history (see 2001’s “Bob the Builder” float) a Macy’s Parade float has taken aim at enhancing the construction intellect of the nation’s children.
But unlike the case of Bob the Builder, this time the construction float is aimed primarily at girls. This is a laudable venture from two points of view. One the one hand, enticing more women to become engineers could go a long way to close the gender pay gap. After all, look at the list of the top 10 highest paid professions, along with the male population of each (http://www.aei.org/publication/the-gender-wage-gap-myth/), and consider what the impact on the pay gap would be if each of these professions had closer to a 50-50 gender distribution:
- Petroleum Engineering: 87% male
- Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration: 48% male
- Mathematics and Computer Science: 67% male
- Aerospace Engineering: 88% male
- Chemical Engineering: 72% male
- Electrical Engineering: 89% male
- Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering: 97% male
- Mechanical Engineering: 90% male
- Metallurgical Engineering: 83% male
- Mining and Mineral Engineering: 90% male
Persuading more girls to consider engineering could help alleviate another problem – the current shortage of engineers. Today, only about 14% of all engineers are women, so bringing their numbers equal to those of men would increase the supply of engineers by nearly 75% — certainly making up for the decline of engineering graduates in general over the last couple of decades.
Why has there been such a decline in interest in engineering over the past couple of decades? Maybe GoldieBlox is on to something – it could be the toys. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of “engineering”-type toys. Some of my earliest memories were of a set of blocks – no more than inert, rectangular pieces of wood, which, if they were to provide any fun, I had to engineer into some kind of structure. Next I moved on to Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, toys which probably inspired a lot of civil and mechanical engineers, respectively. After that, an Erector Set – with which I spent innumerable weekends, painstakingly trying to build some complicated project that I had dreamed up (with those projects, not only did I learn about engineering, but I learned a lot about how to deal with failure, too!).
I tried to recreate some of that same experience with my own kids, partly because I wouldn’t have minded if some of them showed some interest in pursuing engineering (and partly because parents persist in inflicting their childhood on their kids). I have to say that compared to other toys available during their childhood, a set of blocks or Lincoln Logs was pretty lame. I did buy one of my kids an Erector Set once, but without having gone through the blocks, logs, and Tinker Toy stages, the Erector Set was totally out-of-context. (“What, I have to put it together? Why, did it break during shipping?”) The closest any of my kids ever came to playing with “engineering” toys was when one of my daughters went through a Bionicles (the half-monster, half-construction toy) stage, but unfortunately that didn’t stick. In short, there weren’t a lot of good toys available that would seem to cultivate an engineering mind – and maybe now we’re seeing the results of that, a generation later.
So GoldieBlox may be on to something, fun toys that promote engineering minds. But we probably need more toys aimed at boys as well. Blocks and Lincoln Logs probably have about as much appeal these days as “Kick the Can”, but maybe a Bionicle float right next to the GoldieBlox float in next year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade might go a long way to reversing the future engineering shortage.
Thankful that your kids want to become engineers? Buy them some good toys, and then some day let them use www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis on the Cloud.
By Tom Van Laan
Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2014