There’s a nice profile (abstract here) of the British inventor James Dyson in the Sep 20, ’10 issue of the New Yorker. His eponymous vacuum cleaner has made him vastly wealthy (~$1.5B) for a refreshing reason – it’s a better product. Or at least that’s what people say; I haven’t used one myself. I can testify that his new hand dryer system, the Dyson Air Blade, is an air dryer that is finally superior to paper towels. It actually does dry your hands off without killing trees or burning much coal – it uses 1/5 of the energy of a hot air dryer.
In the profile Dyson talks a lot about getting back to actually making things. He’s distressed at the sad state of tech in the UK, and particularly irked at the dominance of finance. Yep, here too. He recently wrote a lengthy report for the new Conservative government, Ingenious Britain, suggesting ways to re-invigorate the high-tech sector. It’s pretty boilerplate stuff: R&D tax credits for small firms, more attention to technical education, better transitions from university research to products. It’s about what Democrats would talk about in the US, even down to stressing things like high-speed rail and off-shore wind. He does conclude his introduction with some extremely British phrasing: “We have brilliant, brilliant minds and a good dose of obstinacy. Ideal really.”
But the Brits already pioneered a better way to get people into tech: “Scrapyard Challenge”, known in the US as Junkyard Wars, and first aired in ’98. Cool projects are much more engaging than prettified science textbooks, especially when there’s competition and dangerous stuff like welding involved. The US version of people-hacking-stuff-together is, of course, MythBusters, now in its well-deserved 8th season. Make magazine is doing its part, along with the inspirational Maker Faires. There are even maker celebrities like Dean Kamen, who has parlayed his fortune and the attention he gets into the FIRST robotics competitions, where high school teams compete to build machines to accomplish some task like sinking basketballs. The showdowns are huge fun, with big crowds from the schools coming out to cheer on their classmates.
Is any of this working? It may be too soon to tell, but it doesn’t look like it. The NSF tracks the number of degrees granted in science and engineering, and here they are as a fraction of the number of people in that age range:
Computer science is bopping around, but the proportion of young people who are interested in engineering hasn’t changed much for 20 years. The data only goes up to 2006, since that’s all the NSF has. The next report is due next year, but will probably only take it up to 2008.
Now, the big push to get young people interested in tech may be more recent than 2006, and so won’t be reflected in these stats. The slight uptick in interest in mechanical engineering is encouraging. On the other hand, these are terrible times for engineering careers, what with the Great Recession, the loss of manufacturing to the Far East, and the corporate pressure to reduce salaries by out-sourcing and H1-B visas. Nor is the number of degrees necessarily a good indicator of interest, since Dean Kamen himself never got one, and nor did Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg.
Still, you would expect the trend in engineering degrees to be steadily upwards in a country that prides itself on innovation. The fact that it’s flat means that Dyson and Kamen are right to worry.