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Spreading the Word About Science

November 04, 1996|GRAHAM WITHERALL | Graham Witherall is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

Aspiring doctors may look to "E.R." for a peek at their futures. Budding lawyers can catch "L.A. Law" reruns or pick up a John Grisham novel. College journalism majors can drop into their local video store for titles such as "All the President's Men" or "The Paper."

Though television shows, movies and books certainly distort what actually occurs in those professions, they at least provide a rough idea of what such careers entail.

But how can college students or others interested in the fields get insight into life as an aircraft systems engineer or hydraulic equipment designer? They won't find "L.A. Aerospace" on television and few books or movies have a chemical engineer as the hero.

"If you're a student wondering what it's like to be a chip designer at Intel or a wing designer at Boeing, there's no way to really find out," said Frank Mayadas, a former IBM researcher who is a program officer with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York.

The Sloan foundation is in the midst of a $5-million effort to fill the void of information on science and engineering careers. With the help of nine engineering and scientific societies, the foundation will produce videos, CD-ROMs, World Wide Web pages and other material to show how people in those fields actually spend their days.

The program is designed to inform students rather than lure them into a particular field. So don't expect predictions of the next hot job or information on the biggest salaries, Mayadas warned.

"This is a great idea because so many students in the sciences really have no idea what they're getting into," said Tom Perry, director of education for the New York-based American Society of Mechanical Engineers, one of the organizations collaborating with the Sloan Foundation.

One of the project's aims is to show the tremendous diversity in each field. Among the mechanical engineers appearing on video, for example, will be those working on projects as varied as amusement park rides, military armored vehicles, surgical equipment and sports stadiums.

Several thousand copies of the videos and other material, which are expected to be ready in early 1997, will be made available to community colleges and public and private universities nationwide. An abridged version of the materials for high school students is planned.

Educators interested in acquiring the materials may contact Mayadas by e-mail at

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