The United States is in the midst of an infrastructure crisis. The nation is also in the midst of an innovative boom in the digital sphere. Educators, investors and urban planners see a need for engineers in fields beyond technology, some going so far as to redefine exactly what a software engineer might be – and they don’t think “engineer” is the best term.
In a recent Forbes piece Marilyn Wait, a civil and environmental engineer, and Connie Bowen, who works with venture capitalists, argue that “When ‘engineers’ are mentioned in the startup world, people tend to mean ‘software engineers’… confusing coding with software engineering and software engineering with physical engineering. We need to stop confusing the term engineer with a computer programmer or coder.”
This miscategorization can confuse students who are interested in pursuing physical engineering degrees, causing them to think that the only kinds of engineers are those who build apps, wear casual clothes and make millions of dollars. In reality, the market is open for those with physical engineering degrees simply because of a failing infrastructure and the need to innovate in the physical world. Waite and Bowen point to several physical world startups in agriculture, bioplastics and cold-plasma technology. These innovations can help secure a safe and stable food supply and can improve recycling strategies.
Sebastian Turbot, former curator of the World Innovation Summit for Education, also sees a need for creative entrepreneurs within real-world scenarios. For urban centers to thrive and make use of new technologies, city planners and civil engineers must receive an education that rewards collaboration, emphasizes critical thinking and questioning, deductive reasoning and real-world applications of mathematical knowledge. Fostering a U.S. education system that achieves these goals can solve future infrastructure challenges and channel young talent into all areas of engineering.