In an ancient time, before STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) was an educational program, how did people get into those fields? STEM was not a “thing” when I went to school. It was DL and sometimes, but not always, DLE. Become a Doctor, Lawyer or Engineer. But engineering was known to equate with math and that was simply a deal breaker for a lot of people. And incidentally, engineering was mainly the domain of males, often geek-ish types, before geeks became sexy. Though STEM is a fairly recent acronym, my story of STEM goes back at least to the 1960’s, probably earlier.
My parents and relatives didn’t really talk about doing what you liked. In the day – I believe this was common up until the late 1960’s – it normally wasn’t a topic for discussion. Parents talked about security and careers that made money. It was a generation of grownups whose own parents, and they themselves, had lived through the Great Depression.
By chance, I got interested in engineering as a distant, but aspirational notion. A family of three brothers and two sisters were a nucleus of neighborhood kids growing up back in the early 1960’s. The family had recently moved from Monterey Park, an LA bedroom community, up to Cupertino, a San Jose bedroom community. My mother decided to drive us up there for a visit. One evening the father brought us kids along to an industry trade show at the Cow Palace, a convention hall situated on the peninsula adjacent to San Francisco.
I vividly recall a custom built, small – maybe 18” long – radio controlled, 4-wheeled vehicle with a clear acrylic body cruising around at one of the industry booths. Bright lights shone on it to feed the automatically tracking solar panel on top. Electro-mechanical, robotic-type technologies were in their infancy. Not toys one could buy. The idea of creating a cool device like that stuck with me.
I began tinkering around with electronics. I built a disco-type strobe light. I built a vacuum tube (transistors had not yet taken over) radio. I made a handheld battery-operated signal generator for testing. I bought a Heathkit vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM) and spent all night and on into the morning assembling it. I played around with stereo equipment and sound systems.
Next, I took a big diversion into motorcycles, learning how to tune, repair, rebuild and custom modify the engines and every other component. I worked in service stations – there was such a thing – where I learned all the routine maintenance procedures and some of the not so routine stuff. One of the service stations I worked at had an engine rebuilding shop in the back – how many places like that are left?
“Prepare for college” was drummed into me by the messages from high school counselors and the middle-class society around me. It was sort of expected that one goes to college or else be relegated to blue collar work. At the time, it seemed like a sensible, black and white proposition even though today I know there are many alternative options.
I graduated high school with satisfactory grades. My GPA was good enough to get into UC Irvine. It was a relatively small school at that time. After being undecided for a year on what to major in, and failing and dropping a few classes, I came to a realization that it was time to get my act together. Rather than choosing an “easy” major, I chose engineering. It was considered a difficult major based on the math and science. That was factual. Fortunately, I had a girlfriend who was sharp in math and was willing to help bring me up to par in this key subject. With decent math skills under my belt, the sciences were no problem. Some of the engineering courses were really challenging, but I managed. By my senior year I had found a workable technology of study and aced most of my classes.
After graduating, finding a job was not as easy as I thought it would be. Though I quickly did get a job offer from North American Rockwell, the work environment and its purpose to society were not attractive – to me anyway. I’d be starting out designing brackets to hold equipment in a military aircraft called the B-1 bomber. I felt I’d be selling out on the ideals of my generation. The only thing less attractive than that job would have been designing toilet seats. Well, I don’t know, maybe designing sewage pumps could be worse. Oh wait – eventually that was, in fact, something I was doing. I designed some large pumping units for the City of Detroit – their anecdotal design capacity based on Super Bowl halftime. It was interesting and challenging work.
But back to the job situation, I held out for something better and secured a Design Engineer position with Byron Jackson Pump Division of Borg Warner. This was a solid industrial pump company with decent pay and benefits, and with an abundance of challenging and interesting projects to work on. It turned out to be an excellent career find and I enjoyed many years with them. Additionally, one of my career desires was to travel all over the world. Employed by an international company with plants in different countries, that aspiration was eventually fulfilled.
After 32 years with the corporation that had become Flowserve – a good career run – I chose to go into independent engineering consulting and have had some wonderful adventures. Initially, it was quite challenging because I no longer had immediate access to all my specialty expert colleagues. I learned how deal with that, oftentimes backfilling with newly learned information or reaching out to other professionals for help. As a consulting engineer, I sometimes spend many unbillable hours learning or becoming familiar with technologies to be able to help a client.
STEM is not something that was sold to me. I sort of walked into it. I was fortunate enough to have a family that supported me. My father had offered, through a friend of his, to apprentice me as a mechanic. I don’t recall why I didn’t take that path. But I’ll never forget what my dad said to me after I announced to him that I chose to become an engineer. He said, “you’re going to be studying the rest of your life.” At first, I thought that wasn’t true. At some point in my career, I realized he was right.
As a footnote to my story, I offer the following tips:
- Choose adventure.
- In any job, your ability to get along well with people matters – a lot.
- Steer away from toxic, anti-social personalities and relationships. They drag you down.
- Choose a smart girlfriend or boyfriend. Good looks are a depreciating asset. “Smarts” increases in value.
- Learn to speak a foreign language.
- Trust your own counsel. You know what’s best for you. Money and material possessions are nice, but don’t let those run your life.
- Maintain a positive outlook. Pause, step back and don’t hit the Send button. Let your message cool off. Allow a bit of time for your attitude mellow.
- Maintain a productive work ethic. Don’t let other people convince you that you’re working too hard or need to slow down. If you’re going to retire, “retire” into another career.
- Allow time for professional growth. Join professional associations, read and study new technologies and new subjects. Become active in your community.
- Learn motorcycle survival skills from a career Highway Patrol instructor and next enroll in Keith Code’s California Superbike School.
- Play the long game. Don’t put yourself in the position of “I wish I had…”
- Stay physically active.
- Integrity – it is your most valuable possession. Keep it intact.
- If you don’t become a mechanic, at least learn how to change the oil.
Science and technology are continually changing the way we live. The path of STEM is challenging, but it is rewarding. Your thought processes become disciplined and your career options open up wide – more so than with any other field of study. It is seeing the physical universe and life processes from a viewpoint of “laws,” of quantities, of cause and effect. STEM enables one to visualize new outcomes and develop creative solutions.
I was glad I walked into a STEM career. If you would like someone to chat with about STEM or how to repair a motorcycle, send me an email.