Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Big Technology

I was exchanging e-mail with a colleague at MentorNet recently about the decline in enrollments in science and engineering. This took me back to my own motivations to pursue a career in engineering. I went to high school in the early 60's. The Race for Space was front page news. President Kennedy had responded to the threat of Sputnik by challenging the nation to put a man on the moon by the end of decade. This was a Big Deal and it reached beyond young people's desire to simply have a job or to make a decent living, but more to be a part of history. At least, that's the way I felt.

I went to engineering school at the University of Michigan and after graduation took a job with Bendix Aerospace which had the contract for the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP). I came too late for Apollo 11 and 12, but my work was onboard Apollo's 14 through 17. I still love the idea that when I look at the moon at night, I know that some of my efforts are in the equipment that is still there. I was pleased to see Google release Google Moon recently which has the site maps for all the Apollo landings. If you click through to the images, you can see the ALSEP experiments being deployed by the astronauts.

The point is, Apollo fired the national imagination as all Big science and technology does. These projects don't come along every day. I can think of only a handful: the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project, the Moon Project, the Human Genome Project. We currently lack anything like these that grab the hearts and minds of not only new students but the rest of us as well. Somewhere in our current struggle with energy and climate change such a project may emerge. We could use it. Sooner rather than later. All of these Big Projects have not only reached their specific objectives but they have also spun off the seeds of innovation that continue to feed us in so many other ways.

Most Big Projects are born of crisis. What will it take to get the next one going? I guarantee that if we have one, enrollments in science and engineering will go way up.

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