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TIME magazine

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"I associated engineering with long, boring assignments. No one showed me why it was cool."

You’ll see that pullout quote and me (along with two friends from MIT) at the top of pages 26 and 27 in TIME’s February 13 issue, IS AMERICA FLUNKING SCIENCE? The cover story is on the U.S. potentially losing its edge in engineering and science, and I was interviewed as one of many people who earn technology-related degrees but don’t pursue related professions.

Since TIME used only two sentences of my perspective, I’ll share two more substantial bits with you here.

First, many people have no clue what they want to study during college for the same reason they don’t know at age 18 what they want to do when they grow up: infinite options and nearly zero experience. I now know I was one of those people and the choice to major in engineering was a default move. Throughout grades K-12, math class was like recess to me and simply surfing past heart surgery on television would make me queasy, so of the three "respectable" professions adults suggest to kids -- doctor, lawyer, and engineer – engineer was the obvious choice. Plus, my grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1919, had only attended one year of school in his life. So when I, only two generations later, was admitted to the best engineering school in the world, I felt obligated to go.

Second, it all seemed so exciting for a while. The summer before my senior year of high school I went to MITES, an elite academic program for underrepresented minorities that almost crams one entire MIT semester into six weeks. Extremely difficult? Yes, but also Motivating –- convinced me that I could compete with my peers nationwide –- Exciting –- included much-celebrated entrepreneurship and mechanical engineering competitions -- and Fun –- students quickly formed a close-knit community of dynamic people. No doubt MITES did its job: pumped me up about engineering and lured me back to MIT, which wasn’t anything like MITES. The real MIT lacked energy and so many classic college institutions to bind students together. And in my major there were no ultra-hyped competitions (like these) to give me the shot of adrenaline and glamour I probably needed to stick with engineering.

Ironically, the longer I’m away from my brief pursuit of engineering, the more I discover why it is so cool and important. The stories I heard too late are the ones I tell others, giving engineering a fairer shake in everyone’s quest to find work they love. And if I really did tragically miss my calling to aid the advancement of science and technology, I hope to inspire many people, who, together, will contribute more than I ever could, to follow theirs.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 11 February 2006 Permalink