Welcome to The STEM Sessions Podcast. I am your host, Jarl Cody.
Let me start by saying this will be a different type of podcast than those before it. There’s no research topic. No question I stumbled upon that I needed to answer for myself. I haven’t written the podcast in full ahead of time. I recorded with a rough outline in front of me, and produced with minimal editing, so it sounds more conversational, which is a polite way of saying it sounds rougher.
This philosophical discussion of what inspired me to pursue a career in mechanical engineering came to the forefront when my favorite teacher from high school announced his retirement. He was certainly one of my inspirations, but I didn’t connect all of the plot points until I started recording a video to him with my congratulations.
He didn’t uniquely inspire me to become an engineer. In fact, no one did. But yet, everyone did. It’s a complicated matter, and one I hope I’m able to properly explain hee.
This is The STEM Sessions Podcast – Episode 15. Why Did I Become an Engineer?
Participated in Skype a scientist for several years.
professionals in a STEM field volunteer to be matched with teachers and classrooms for conversations about what it’s like to work in STEM.
Mostly enjoyable, but there have been a few stinkers
Format is up to the scientist and teacher, but I’ve always introduced myself for a few minutes and then turned it over to Q&A.
I’ve spoken with third grade classes to juniors in high school.
Regardless of age, a frequent question is what inspired you to become an engineer.
I’ve always struggled with the answer, because I can’t point to a single event or person.
I think it often disappoints the students.
Maybe because they want an entertaining story
maybe they’re hoping to learn what might inspire them.
We seem to be trained to expect an “ah ha” moment for the answer to this question.
Maybe it’s shark tank and our misplaced focus on entrepreneurship.
What inspired you to start this company or create this product?
If you don’t have a good ah ha story, it’s almost like you’re not taken seriously.
People don’t see you as having passion or at least not as much passion as someone who had that moment of divine inspiration.
But I don’t think that’s how our life experiences work.
They’re not discrete, unrelated events.
It’s all a continuum.
Today, right now, we are the sum of all experiences and knowledge gained from all days before today.
And tomorrow, we will add today’s experiences and knowledge to the mix.
And today, and all of the days before it, affect what we’ll do tomorrow.
Positive, negative, enlightening, confusion, productive, lazy… It all makes us us, forms our biases, and influences our decisions.
In junior high, I wanted to be a field biologist.
Follows packs of wolves in the back country.
I loved backpacking, I loved tracking, I loved nature.
So a field biologist sounded incredibly fun.
Of course, I had no idea what being a field biologist actually entailed, or how many opportunities were out there.
I just wanted to be in nature.
In high school, I wanted to be a theoretical physicist.
Physics was my favorite class and the spooky, non initiative topics fascinated me.
Of course, I had no idea what being a theoretical physicist actually entailed, or how many opportunities were out there.
I just wanted to think about abstract stuff.
In college, I discovered what being a theoretical physicist was all about.
I learned I don’t have the right type of intelligence for it.
This isn’t a knock on my intelligence, or even saying theoretical physicists are way smarter than me (some are, some aren’t).
It’s just my brain simply doesn’t work in the way theoretical physics requires.
But a the same time, I learned my brain does work in the way required for engineering.
Simplest explanation of what inspired me to become an engineer:
Design based engineering class I took as a freshman in college.
It showed me engineering was more than reading text books.
It was hands on.
It wasn’t just solving exam problems, but also solving real world design problems.
That’s how my brain works.
Like I said, that would be simplest answer. But it isn’t the complete.
Maybe not even all that truthful.
That class might have shined the final spotlight on engineering,
but it was my entire education and upbringing that primed me for that realization.
Engineering was always in my background.
I grew up on a ranch.
Building, fixing, designing, solving problems was just what we did.
Fences, gates, grain silos, electric fences, mowing lawns , prepping fields for crops all had elements of engineering.
Even how I observed local wildlife
Everything was methodical
I’m high school, I loved physics lab and bio lab and chemistry lab.
But looking back at those notebooks (which I’ve kept all this time), it’s clear to me now we weren’t doing physics.
We learning about physics, but in the labs we were actually doing engineering.
We were designing procedures and replicating experiments and solving problems.
But the results and equations were already known.
Doing physics or biology means we would have been expanding the knowledge base of those subjects.
We were certainly learning, but not doing.
Instead, we were determining the best way to replicate results.
The best way to set up our experiments.
The best way to collect measurements.
To think critically and methodically.
To solve problems as they popped up.
The manner in which I collect data when I’m in the lab today can be traced to those high school science labs.
The manner in which I take notes in general, and while doing research for white papers specifically, can be traced back to the structure of my notes in high school history class.
Despite having multiple influences, there was no single moment of inspiration.
No single person made me say “I want to be like him when I grow up”.
Sometimes when answering the question for Skype a Scientist, if I’m feeling spirited, I’ll say MacGyver was my inspiration.
Not the current character who is MacGyver in name only.
I’m talking the OG MacGyver from the late 80s and early 90s.
Most kids don’t get the reference.
And while I’m attempting to add levity to the conversation, if there was any person, real or fictional, that could be my inspiration, it would be Angus MacGyver.
He was a jack of all science trades, but he was an engineer at heart
He solved problems like an engineer.
He improvised like an engineer.
He worked with his hands like an engineer.
Even outside of STEM, there were similarities.
He was an expert in the outdoors and survival.
He was from a northern rural state.
He played hockey.
He was a fan of the Old West.
He had amazing hair.
Those are all traits I had or was learning while growing up.
Before growing out my hair in high school, I rocked the mullet…
I think the overlap was mostly coincidental.
It was my favorite show, because the character and themes fit into my wheelhouse and interests.
I didn’t necessarily model myself after him.
Though, I can remember the theme song playing in my head while building water balloon traps…
I also had the anarchist’s cookbook when I was 12 or 13.
Keep in mind, this was pre-internet, so I couldn’t simply download a scanned copy of the book.
I had to find the actual book.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but for a teenager with a mind for science and engineering and who was entering his rebellious phase, that book was amazing.
It also planted the seeds, or maybe just nurtured the seeds already there, for much of my political philosophy
But sticking with engineering, the book was all about it.
Designing, building, problem solving.
To close, no one single event or person inspired me to pursue engineering as a career.
There is no shame in not having an “ah ha” moment of inspiration.
You’re not less passionate than the people who do.
Besides, I propose those ah ha moments are less important than their owners claim they are.
Dozens if not hundreds or thousands of prior experiences primed them to make that decision in that ah ha moment.
I am the product of everything I’ve learned and experienced in my life, and you are, too.
The good, the bad, and the ugly;
the academic, the recreational, and the wastes of time;
the pride, the shame, and the confusion.
The past is all vital to who we are today.
And today is vital to who we will be tomorrow.
Take inspiration from all of it.
Thank you for listening to The STEM Sessions Podcast.
This episode was researched, written, and produced by me, Jarl Cody.
While I strive for completeness and accuracy, I encourage you to do your own research on the topic we discussed, and confirm what I’ve presented. Corrections and additional information are always welcome.
Shownotes, contact information, and details of our other activities can be found on our website thestemsessions.com
If you received value from this episode, and wish to give some back, please visit thestemsessions.com/valueforvalue for ways to support the podcast.
Finally, please remember STEM is not the exclusive tool of experts, policy makers, or talking heads. Every presenter is susceptible to unconscious and, sometimes, deliberate bias, so always verify what you read and what you’re told.
Until the next one, stay curious.