The Stark-Dilbert Scale: Learning to balance the fun side and not so fun sides of STEM

stark dilbert

We introduce engineering and sciences to children as fun and adventurous subjects. When I was a kid science made me think about Space Shuttle liftoffs, chemistry sets, robots, super computers, and gizmos. I, like many other children, wanted to study STEM because of it’s ability to bring the products of our imaginations into reality.

I quickly realized that the STEM that we see as adults can differ from the STEM that we saw as children. STEM is difficult to study at a higher level. College sciences are heavily theoretical often filled with complicated math and concepts. They require complex data analysis that is tedious to perform. Unfortunately for many students things don’t get better after graduation. Oftentimes recent STEM grads find themselves stuck in cubical farms complaining that they spend more time looking at spreadsheets and going to office meetings than doing actual science and engineering.

Before pursuing my engineering degree I wondered if it was possible to merge the cool parts of STEM that inspire us as kids with the tedious realities of STEM  we discover as adults. I then developed Stark-Dilbert scale to help put things in perspective.

The two extremes of engineering (and STEM in general) can be characterized by two  very popular fictional engineers. Tony Stark, a brilliant MIT engineering grad who built the Iron Man suit, represents the innovative and hands on side of STEM. His lab filled with hologram interfaces, advanced gadgets, and witty AI assistants makes kid inside of millions of nerds giddy. I would be lying if I said that the 2007 movie Iron Man didn’t help influence my decision to study engineering.

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Tony Stark building the Iron Man suit

The other side of the spectrum can be represented by Dilbert, the nerdy and socially awkward engineer forced to deal with the daily drudgery and bureaucracy at his job. The boring office politics and absurd requests from upper management that Dilbert deals with often mirrors the experiences of many real life engineers in the corporate world.

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Cubicle vs Office,  November 1 2012

The Stark-Dilbert scale compares the cool and hands-on aspects of science and engineering that we imagine as kids with the boring and tedious parts that we often experience as adults. Similar to how gravity causes objects to fall down, the analytical nature of STEM makes it easier for the Dilbert side of the scale to dominate. However just as  a good understanding of aerodynamics can combat the pull of gravity , a good understanding of STEM can help pull you away from the boring Dilbert sides to the fun Stark sides.

One of the best ways to make your STEM experience more interesting is to make time fir your own fun projects outside of school. In my spare time I build drones , brain controlled robots, and many other personal projects. Working on something cool outside of the classroom satisfies my innate curiosity and constantly renews my interest in STEM. Oftentimes as I’m tinkering at home find the need to apply some of the theory and data analysis skills that I learned in class.

Another suggestion I can offer is to  join an engineering club or other groups competing in design challenges. Experiences such as Formula SAE and robots competitions give students the opportunity to put their engineering skills to the test as they design and physically build ideas to complete a specific task . These competitions also teach students how to work in teams with other engineers and they look great on resumes.

Getting involved with academic research can be a  more permanent way to tip the scale towards the Stark side. Conducting research gives you a chance to directly apply the theories you learn in class to develop solutions to real world problems. While sometimes tedious, research gives you the opportunity to develop technical skills that you wouldn’t learn in class. Also, If I can be honest, sometimes you get to do some really cool things!

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Sanding parts for my robotics research

Research experience  opens the doors to careers in R&D. However, you may  need to get an advanced degree to qualify for those positions. Research jobs are more hands on than office jobs and definitely more interesting!  You will  get paid to do real science and engineering.

If things get too boring or monotonous during your STEM studies you may want to take the time to check and adjust your Stark-Dilbert scale. With the right amount of work and planning  you can make STEM just as exciting as it was when you were a kid!

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