In a career that has included service as television commentator, law professor and columnist for the Baltimore Sun, Garland Thompson has worked to bring more minorities into the fields of science and technology. As Editorial Director for US Black Engineer & Information Technology and Hispanic Engineer & IT, he shares his experiences.
What is your organization all about?
Career Communications is a minority-owned company, and our mission is to promote significant minority achievement in engineering, science and technology. Our publisher, Tyrone Taborn, began this work at Cornell some years back, with a student newspaper. Now we publish the two leading magazines for people of color in technology: US Black Engineer and Information Technology and Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology*.
We do the annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards and Career Conference, which is a multi-level conference that involves thousands of high school and college students and thousands of professionals—engineers, computer scientists, technical managers, and scientists. We also do the Women of Color Technology Awards and Career Conference” and this year we held a Bridging the Digital Divide Conference.
When you think of careers in engineering, you can think of a really wide span of jobs-–engineers can have a few years of community college or they can be Ph.D’s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, building spacecraft. Would you give us an overview of the field of engineering?
Engineers are people who think up new products and new ways to create products and processes. So it is engineers who create things of value—most of what we call modern society is based on their work. Steam engines, railroads, telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, even the sailing ships that brought the first colonists here–all of that is technology, developed by engineers.
We have tried to put engineers into categories, but what we’ve found is that the categories break down because in reality people do all kinds of things. Mechanical engineers who are trained in the principles of physics and mechanics are inventing lasers. Electrical engineers are becoming aircraft engineers; computer scientists are becoming rocketeers.
Do you think that students and teachers are aware of the range of professions that are related to engineering?
I’m pretty sure that they aren’t, because we talk to them a lot. And I’m sure they aren’t aware of all of the opportunities and careers available in the information sciences. Some of the companies that come to our conferences and advertise in our magazines are companies in the finance business. They’re moving dollars and cents and information about dollars and cents all around the world. And they’re finding that that’s a technology exercise, and they need engineers who not only know how to speak applied science but have some idea what the finance heads are talking about.
What would an engineer do at one of these finance institutions, specifically?
What’s the big thing in the stock market today, in the investment business? Online trading. And how do they do online trading but through a technology system. That means they’ve got to have engineers, computer programmers, computer scientists, network professionals, the whole panoply of technology professionals that might work in an industrial enterprise.
So an engineer would have a whole lot of things to do. Not only be an application developer, but be a person who designs a very large network, designs the portals, goes out and negotiates with a number of online services and web system providers about how their networks could connect to the finance company’s network. Yes, the finance people are the ones who thought it up; no, they didn’t have the skills on their own to make it happen. For that, they have to have engineers.
Do you think that technology is itself a tool that we can use to educate students towards these kinds of careers?
We’re having a great debate in this society about whether or not these technology tools that we’re rushing to put in schools really can be useful in learning. The answer is at hand. Young people are learning through distance learning and computer assisted learning every day. What are they learning? The Pokemon game. And they’re learning it very well.
So we need to be thinking about how to adapt those tools to teach the things we want our children to learn, the things we think they need to learn and should learn. Technology is a set of tools that you can use to make everyone’s life better. It’s up to us how well we use those tools. We can’t lose sight of that.
What do you think we can do for teachers to help them encourage their students to pursue careers in technology?
Teach them how to use the technology and teach them something that teachers have been convinced is not true – that technology is fun to play with. Everybody learns Pokemon because Pokemon is fun. But is Pokemon the only thing that can be fun?
The truth is that technology and science are not only good things to learn, they are fun things to learn. We need to help teachers have that kind of fun. And if it’s fun to learn for the teachers, it’s also going to be fun for the students. And if it’s fun to learn for the students, everybody is going to benefit.