The Engineering Problem and How Women are the Answer

A big topic of worry right now in the US is the outsourcing of jobs. A lot of people are wondering how we as Americans can be competitive when wages in so many other parts of the world are so low. Now while this is open to debate, I believe that in order to stay competitive in the 21st century, America has to lead the way in technology and innovation; we have to lead the world in new ideas.

The advent of globalization and low wage jobs abroad means that the only way we can compete is by being ahead of the bell curve when it comes to technology. But if we are to lead the way in technology and innovation, we need our students to enter fields like engineering and science. Unfortunately, the percentage of students going into science and technology is on the decline in the US1, which is very bad news.

Why is this bad news? Because without the proper training, American students will not have the tools to create the things we dream up. Degrees in engineering and science are the tools American students will need if they hope to be leaders in technology.

Ok, so we have a problem, but how do we fix it?

How do we convince American students to go into science and engineering? The key to this riddle, in my opinion, is women.  Studies have shown that women have a huge influence on the education of their children (both boys and girls)2.  If more women go into engineering, then more of their children will be exposed to engineering, and it becomes a positive feedback cycle.  Already in the US, the fields of law and medicine, which were historically male dominated fields, have a higher application rate among women than men3.  This suggests that just because science and technology have traditionally been male dominated fields, this can change.

But how do we go about convincing the next generation of women to enter engineering and science?

I think the trick here is to redesign science and engineering curriculum and the tools used in these fields, such as calculators, computers, or microscopes, to appeal to women.

An example of how this can be effective can be seen in urban biking in the US versus Europe4. Bike infrastructure in Europe was designed to address women’s innate risk aversion; instead of sharing the roads with automobiles many bike lanes in Europe have their own dedicated lanes, completely separated from automotive traffic. In addition, unlike many dedicated bike lanes in the US that simply run through parks or along river promenades, the bike lanes in Europe were designed to access useful parts of the city, such as local shopping centers, thus making biking practical as a means of running errands.

By examining the gender disparity in urban biking between the US and Europe, it is possible to see the effects of designing bicycle infrastructure for women and how that affects overall bicycle usage. In the US urban biking is 66:33, male to female. At the same time the overall percentage of urban biking in the US is 2%, compared to 12% in Germany where the gender disparity is 51:49, male to female, and 27% in Netherlands, where the disparity is actually in the other direction 45:55, male to female. From this it can be surmised that by making it more appealing for women to ride bicycles you actually increase the overall number of bikers.

I believe the same can be true for women in engineering, and the overall number of Americans going into engineering.

How do we redesign tools and curriculum that are more appealing to women?

I think the first step in addressing how to make the tools and curriculum for science and technology more appealing to women is to bring women into the design process. For example, using sports in a physics textbook to describe a physical phenomenon (such as a baseball flying through the air under the influence of gravity) implies that you are familiar with baseball, a male dominated sport.

Another area of possible improvement is in the redesign of the tools we use, such as graphing calculators. If a woman were to design a calculator, would it still look like what we envision a calculator to look like? Screen on top, keys on bottom, basic 3 x 3 number pad? I don’t know the answer to this question, but we need to at least reexamine the possibility that the tools we use in science and technology have historically been designed for men, which might be radically different from how women would want to use them.

I think it would be very interesting to put together a team of designers and educators- half female, half male- and tell them to create from scratch a science and technology curriculum including the tools needed, from microscopes to software, and see what the final result would is. I bet it will be drastically different from what we currently have in our schools today.

Design matters, and I think the first step to making science and engineering appealing to women is to re-examine how science and engineering is presented in school from a design aesthetic. This in turn will lead to more women going into science and engineering, which will hopefully result in more Americans in general going into science and engineering, which is the key to America remaining a leader in technology and innovation as we go forward in the 21st century.

AC vs DC: Edison’s Revenge

Bracket from 1883 Tournament of Genius.

The Original Feud
Though Thomas Edison is remembered as one of the most prolific, influential, and successful inventors in history, he actually lost one of his biggest professional battles.  He spent a large portion of his life wrapped up in a struggle over the future of electricity.  He advocated the use of DC (direct current) power and bitterly opposed champions of AC (alternating current) power such as Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse.  The “War of Currents” was heated enough that Edison became involved in the development of the electric chair, despite his opposition to capital punishment, to demonstrate what he saw as the dangers of AC power.  He also publicly executed a number of animals via electrocution to prove his point.

In the end, Edison lost; today virtually any wall outlet in the world provides AC power.  However, I think the pendulum may be swinging back and I’m going to float the argument that DC power will enjoy much more widespread use in the next hundred years than in the past hundred.

AC vs. DC Power
It’s actually not quite accurate to imply that DC power has not been used since AC won the power generation and transmission war.  However, it is illustrative to look at the two types of power and their advantages and disadvantages.

DC power uses unidirectional flow of electric charge and is produced by batteries, solar cells, and dynamo-type electric generators.  Generally speaking, it is more difficult to transmit over long distances than AC power without significant energy loss (although high voltage direct current – HVDC – can be used for efficient transmission in certain settings).  Since the adoption of AC power for the electrical grid, the chief use of DC has been in battery-powered applications.

AC power, on the other hand, uses bidirectional flow of electric charge and offers significant advantages over DC for highly efficient power transmission.  Because the power grid is AC, most of the devices in our lives that plug into the wall are designed and optimized for an AC power source (although many of the devices internally convert the power to DC for use).

Centralization vs. Localization
The power grid approach, that has dominated since Edison’s time, uses a combination of large, centralized power plants with a network of transmission and distribution lines to send the power where it needs to go.  AC power is the logical choice in a power grid, because of power transmission advantages. Historically, the economics of power plant design have made a distributed, localized model infeasible.  However, things are now changing.

The Coming Sea Change
Renewable energy generation via technologies such as solar, wind, and hydropower looks to be the way of the future (initially in combination with fossil fuels and eventually exclusively).  In particular, technologies such as solar have a few interesting characteristics: (1) they output DC power and (2) they lend themselves well to a distributed model.  For instance, it’s easy to put solar panels on every roof in a city so that all the buildings are generating power, whereas it doesn’t make sense to have a coal power plant in every home.  In a situation like this, power transmission is not much of an issue since the power is being used in the same place it is being generated.  That being the case, there is no need to convert to AC, send to the wall outlet, and then convert back to DC for use.

Bottom Line
The reason that the today’s electric grid uses AC power (efficient transmission) will matter less and less in a future world where power generation takes place in a more distributed fashion.  Imagine a 12/24VDC world, instead of the 120/240VAC world of today (this brings up a number of questions and issues in its own right, which probably deserve their own post, but we’ll set those aside for now).  The opportunities to both redesign existing appliances and devices and also to create new products that fully take advantage of the new power paradigm are staggering.  So I throw out a challenge to the designers of the world: look around and start thinking about optimizing electrical products for low voltage, DC power – and make Edison proud.