24/02/2012 19:27 GMT | Updated 04/05/2012 10:10 BST

The Award For Engineering Goes To...

It's one of the year's most hotly anticipated competitions. The contenders look nervously across the wings as the host steps up to the podium. The envelope is fumbled. The noise in the room drops in anticipation. Who will take away the coveted prize... the Mississippi regional middle school Science Bowl?

You have to be realistic. Amid the hype and intrigue of ceremonies like the Oscars, a regional Science Bowl doesn't grab headlines.

I'd be a curmudgeon to deny talented artists recognition, or global audience shows like the Oscars or the Grammys. The problem is that by focusing so exclusively on celebrating the popular arts we deprive society, and more importantly children, of other people to look up to. No wonder many children's role models are, well, models.

The US now graduates more visual and performing arts majors than engineers. The same is true in the UK, where a recent survey found that while 4% of teenage girls want to become engineers and 14% scientists, 32% wanted to be models.

But can we blame youngsters for wanting to be pro-athletes and actors when the media fixates on celebrity on a daily basis?

Natalie Portman, who took home best actress Oscar last year, has more than acting prowess to distinguish herself: she was once a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search competition for her research on an environmentally friendly method of converting waste into energy. Of course, the former achievement scored more highly in the publicity stakes.

President Obama has spoken about treating science fair winners the like Super Bowl Champions. Unlikely, but what steps can be taken to at least partly fulfill the rhetoric?

There's a real opportunity here. Young people are clued up on contemporary issues that need to be fixed, from climate change to food shortages. But, despite the fact that toddlers can grasp the basics of a smartphone, not enough of them aspire to become the people that can solve them: scientists and engineers.

In part, this is because of a lack of association between the technology we use - computers, cars and cell phones - and the people who develop and invent them. Because we just don't celebrate them.

This lack of cultural awareness is a problem. Fewer Americans and Brits choose to study science and engineering. Engineers and inventors are lionized in US. The problem is that the ones we celebrate are often a hundred years dead.

There are television shows that are trying to change perceptions: PBS's Everyday Edisons and the Science Channels How it's Made on the Discovery Channel for example. But these are the exceptions.

It's not just down to the media. It's up to politicians and companies to help change these perceptions and fly the flag for invention. China gets this one right. Science and engineering are increasingly ingrained in Chinese culture - so much so that most members of the Chinese Government have engineering degrees. The evidence of this mindset can be seen in thousands of high-profile Chinese infrastructure projects.

We need to help educate people on engineering and manufacturing - shaking off the outdated dreary image of factory and monotonous lab work. Today's factories aren't Dickensian work houses. They're high tech and exciting.

I was warned that if I failed my exams that I'd end up in a factory. As it happens I did, and I enjoy it immensely. Our factory has a microbiology lab with a dust mite zoo, robotic testers, an electro-magnetic chamber and 3D printers, among other things. And I get to develop ideas with 600 like minded engineers and problem solvers every day.

Engineers and scientists are not nerds but creative polymaths who think with their hands and their heads. Inspirational individuals to be respected, not mocked. Let's give them a soap box for the 21st century. Talking up science and engineering won't solve the manufacturing malaise. But it's a good, and cheap, start.

Many of the 14% of UK girls who wanted to be scientists were specifically interested in becoming forensic scientists. Why? Because of programs like CSI beamed to millions worldwide. Television can do a lot to help raise the profile of scientists and engineers. The media and politicians can too. Rather than dwelling on the delayed Dreamliner, let's applaud the latest MIT breakthrough. Let's celebrate our everyday Edisons and put them on the silver screen, during prime time.

James Dyson is the inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner. His Foundation runs the James Dyson Award - a global competition for student inventors and designers: