STEM Students and the Engineering Ritual of the Ring

I recently hosted some 6th grade STEM students at our office. We ran through a series of challenges focused around problem solving and computational thinking.

Normally these events have hosts giving away company swag but I wanted to do something different. Something that would not only be lasting and less wasteful but also more meaningful. Something whose value was not in its intrinsic cost, but entirely in what it represented.

With the help of some coworkers, I’d fashioned a single hexagonal nut onto a ball chain. Incredibly inexpensive — to the point of being worthless. I kept the chains a glass bowl in the front of the room, and whenever the students asked about it, I smiled and told them I’d get to it later.

Finally — after 2 hours of puzzles, exercises and challenges, I told them a story about myself.

When I was in 8th grade I collected key chains. I had so many they barely fit in my pocket. One day I noticed my friend’s Microsoft key-chain and begged for him to trade. I’d give him any key-chain, then any 2, then any 3. I finally traded all of them for that one Microsoft key-chain. I kept it with me through to college until it wore down so thin I lost it. It was really meaningful when I later wound up working at Microsoft. I graduated with a Physics degree — but I was close friends with many engineering students, and that’s when I learned about the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer.”

In Canada, Engineers undergo a 100 year old secret ceremony upon graduation. The ceremony passages were written by Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book. The engineer is given an iron ring to wear on their pinky finger of their writing hand. It’s not ornamental and it’s not comfortable. It has jagged facets that you are always meant to feel. You can hear it tap against your keyboard, or scratch against the surface of paper as you write.

The ring is not certification of skill set but a reminder of the responsibilities of being an engineer. One calculation error and a bridge will collapse. One bug and a database of 150+million private records will be released.

Throughout out time together, the students had excitedly talked over each other, they’d goofed around the way you’d expect them to — but they were incredibly silent and attentive as I told them all this.

Finally, I got to the bowl.

I lifted it up and told them they hadn’t yet earned their iron rings — but that didn’t mean they weren’t doing anything important. While they have years ahead of them in earning their iron ring I wanted them to have a token reminder of the path they were on. The hexagonal nuts are a smaller version of the ring that the students could wear as bracelets, put on their backpacks or binders.

I stressed just how worthless and inexpensive they were — but also how important their meaning was. I concluded by saying how I’d hoped it would be for them what my Microsoft key-chain had been for me: a meaningless object on which personal meaning and a tangible goal had been imparted.

Leading up to this day, I’d been doubting myself on this idea. Honestly, how excited would kids be to get a little piece of hardware from a totally uncool grown-up. Even when I’d run the idea past a few friends, while they all liked the idea, they echoed similar doubts.

It was my turn to be completely silent when I saw the students rush to the bowl and take a chain, some asking if they could take an extra for their brother, or sister. One student even gave one to her mom who was chaperoning and said it was time for her to follow her dream.

There’s no telling how long the students will keep the chains or what long term impact there will be, if any . Obviously my hope is it lasts, but overall I think it was a valuable lesson for both the students and myself.

Not only were the students interested, but many of my team members who are seasoned engineers but — by virtue of not being Canadian — had not heard of the iron ring.

At the heart of wearing the iron ring is a strong sense of community and support. It is a reminder of an honorable purpose, and the responsibility we all hold as engineers. It’s a reminder everyone could use. It also goes to show, the value of a gift isn’t in the price you pay, but the meaning in it.

I’ll now always keep a bowl of these chains at my desk, and gift them when appropriate. The bowl serves as a reminder to me of the responsibility we senior engineers hold to the generation of engineers to come.

Update from 2022: If you've landed here from a different website, I'm happy to update that after years of doing this, and having given out more than 300 or so, I finally have a video!


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