The guidance counselor at my son’s middle school called me last week and asked if I would be interested in coming in to talk to the eighth grade class at their upcoming career day. Of course I would love to do that, but it raises an interesting challenge for me. You see, I’m not exactly sure how to explain what exactly it is that I do.
A couple of years ago, in a post titled “My Dad is a Knowledge Worker,” I addressed basically the same question:
When my kids were finally old enough to ask me what I do, I told them simply, “I figure out how to solve problems.” That seemed to satisfy them, at least for now. Trying to explain to friends what I do everyday is a bit more difficult. When asked, I usually give my official job title, Systems Engineer. Of course, that instantly begs the question, “OK, but what do you do?”
I recently tried to explain, without much success I think, what I do at the most recent St. Louis Idea Market using only a diagram (visualization exercise) and 5 words or less. Yeah, right.
I asked my son for advice on what to say, what he thought would be something that he and his classmates would like to hear. He’s going to get back to me. I’m starting to think that instead of addressing my current job, it may be more useful to talk about how I got to where I am. After all, these kids are going to be much more interested in how to get started than in where they’re going to be when they are in their 40’s (man, that’s old!)
Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.
At the last St. Louis Idea Market, Scott Matthews from XPLANE had us all create a visual explanation of how a toaster works. Among many observations I made from the exercise, key was how different people interpreted what was meant by “how a toaster works.” Some of us took it to mean “How do you make toast with a toaster” while others approached it from the “how does a toaster function” point of view. (It was pretty easy to pick out engineers in the crowd!) Scott has posted the scanned cards on Flickr.
Photographer Volker Steger gave a similar visual story telling challenge to past Nobel laureates in the article and photo layout Nobel Notations in the December 2006 issue of Discover magazine, in which he asked these great minds to explain their prize winning achievements using crayons and a piece of poster board.
The scientists’ artwork draws out unexpected and often deeply personal details. Curl’s depiction of the buckyball’s creation hints at a dispute over the naming of the molecule. He favored “soccerene” for its soccer-ball shape, but his British cowinner, Sir Harold Kroto, nixed that idea, arguing that in England the game is called football and that the molecule ought to be called “footballene.” (In the end, it was named for architect Buckminster Fuller’s celebrated geodesic domes.)
If you would like to your own hand at a visual explanation for a scientific idea – and possibly win a prize – check out the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.