Why Engineers and Scientists Should Teach Children

"It's funny how things I taught in Family Science always seem to pop up in my life. People think I'm a genius for understanding Reynolds number on such a fundamental level, but really, I know it because I taught it to a bunch of 4th graders." - Engineer

I am an aerospace engineer. I wanted to build bird-inspired airplanes since I was 8 years old. I studied a lot -- did physics for three years, did a masters in aerospace for three years more, then even more years in a PhD aerospace program. I worked at one of the most innovative aerospace companies of all time (AeroVironment) -- the very same company that I dreamt of working... and still, there was a void.

During that search for meaning, I started Iridescent, an-d found fulfillment. And more than 500 engineers and scientists have also found meaning - by sharing their passion with children.


Here is why I think engineers and scientists can find teaching especially fulfilling.

Projects these days are especially complex. They require large teams and product cycles are long (over many years). So individuals do not immediately feel as if they have made an impact on the world, or that they have helped someone. The philosopher Alain de Boton makes some great points in this video about how we no longer know how things are made and there is an overall loss of a sense of control.

This is why teaching children can be so empowering. It doesn't need to be a dramatic career shift. It can simply be a volunteering commitment. But there is a critical mix that results in the experience being powerful for each person. Here is why a mentoring experience is so rewarding:

* You light up a child's face. There is something very poignant and wonderful in making a child smile.


* You get to light a fire, a curiosity, a new way of looking at the world. And that provides you with a sense of meaning. You have just made the world a tiny bit better.
* You learn to communicate simply and powerfully.
* You can help deepen a child's understanding of how the world works, correct misconceptions or sweep away confusions -- all are immensely satisfying.
* You learn new skills yourself or deepen existing core skills. For instance, explain your research or project to 4th graders without using any technical jargon really makes you question your own grasp of the subject, while giving you a new perspective on what you already know.
* A final test of your understanding is when you create open-ended engineering design challenge that helps children gain a deeper appreciation for your project. For instance, children can learn about the efficiency of multi-layer chromatophore muscle attachments in octopus that enable it to change color rapidly. To transfer their learning, children can be challenged to cover a piece of cardboard with pieces of balloons (or chromatophores) with an optimum no. of rubber bands (or muscle attachment points). The challenge is a respectable design problem for engineers as well!

There is a lot of discussion these days regarding the lack of capable, diverse, innovative STEM workforce. The solution is not that hard. It just requires everyone to rally around a common goal -- like we did a few decades ago with the race to space. It was cool to become an engineer or a scientist.

It is time to rally again and inspire the next generation of innovators and inventors. And to do so can actually be fun and fulfilling.

Here is a challenge for you... How would you introduce orbital mechanics to a 10-year-old girl?