Steve Bechtel Jr.'s Big Dream and the Invention of DiscoverE

August 8, 2017

A headline in the magazine Science said it all: “Wanted: 675,000 Future Scientists and Engineers.” It was June 30, 1989, and the National Science Foundation published the study as a warning about the threat of diminishing American competitiveness. A U.S. Council on Competitiveness task force and even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration soon echoed the call. 

Steve Bechtel Jr., in one of his last major decisions of a 30-year tenure as Bechtel’s CEO, did something about it. He led the transformation of Engineers Week, a largely inward-focused, grown-up affair held since 1951, into a powerful conduit for engaging with young children about the possibilities of engineering. 

“Steve Bechtel saw that as one of his missions for his retirement years,” says LeeAnne Lang, Bechtel Group Foundation manager, who worked on that first campaign. “He mobilized all of us and our peer companies to reach out into schools and start talking to young people about the profession and what you need to do to prepare for it.” 

Steve Bechtel spent a day with students at a San Francisco middle school and called on other members of the profession to participate in similar teach-ins. Bechtel’s Corporate Affairs department invented an urban-planning game played with stickers on paper. Five thousand engineers joined him in making classroom visits that year. 

DiscoverE has since expanded to hold Engineers Week; Future City, the national contest in which middle-school students create competing presentations and models imagining a city of the future; Girl Day, with nationwide events to introduce girls to engineering; Global Day, which celebrates engineering around the world; and the Global Marathon, an online, planet-spanning conference uniting and discussing women in engineering. DiscoverE is one of four Bechtel Signature Stewardship Program partners, which receive the bulk of Bechtel’s volunteer time and financial support. The National Engineers Week Foundation was renamed DiscoverE in 2013. 

“We really started pushing for engineers to get out in their communities and work with kids and their parents and educators,” says Leslie Collins, executive director of DiscoverE, the 26-year-old organization that arose from the effort. 

Dream Big is the newest addition to DiscoverE’s programs. The giant-screen IMAX feature film, which Bechtel sponsored with the American Society of Civil Engineers, premiered globally on February 17. DiscoverE created a huge array of programming for museums, engineers, and educators to build on the fascination for engineering that the film creates. 

The children who were the first to experience Bechtel’s outreach with DiscoverE a quarter century ago are now in a position to teach, guide, and mentor a new generation with tools that grew from Steve Bechtel dreaming big 26 years ago. 

Watch the trailer for Dream Big: Engineering Our World.

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