Education. That's the first priority of Donald W. Ableson, incoming president of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Mr. Ableson, director of special vehicle activity (SVA) for General Motors Corp., believes that promoting mathematics and the sciences in elementary schools is key to molding the engineers of tomorrow. And he plans to lead the charge.

An industrial engineering graduate of GMI - now Kettering University - Mr. Ableson began his automotive career as a co-op for GM's Fisher Body Div.

"It was merely the luck of the draw," Mr. Ableson says of his initial hiring.

The rest, as they say, is history.

He now boasts a long and varied career with the world's largest automaker. In 1980, he took over as general superintendent of manufacturing engineering for the Fiero program at Pontiac Div., and in 1984 was named plant manager of the Pontiac "G" Assembly Plant. Later, Mr. Ableson managed the Pontiac Pressed Metal Plant.

After his stint there, Mr. Ableson, who also holds a master's degree in business administration from Michigan State University, took on the plant manager post at GM's Tarrytown, NY, assembly plant for the startup of the APV minivan program. With his experience with the plastic body production at Fiero and the APV program, he moved in as manager of international programs for Cadillac Commercial Vehicles, eventually responsible for bringing the Catera to the U.S.

Mr. Ableson is well prepared for his new assignment. He is a past member of the Board of Directors and a member of numerous SAE committees including the SAE Foundation, the Motor Vehicle Council, the Sections Board, the Strategic Planning Committee, the Space Needs Committee, the Emerging Technologies Advisory Board, the Finance Committee, the Medal of Honor Committee and the Appeals Board.

But closest to his heart is the "World in Motion" program launched in 1996. "We're in a real decline getting enough students to go to engineering schools and then to graduate schools," Mr. Ableson says. "In talking with the professionals of education, they feel you have to start down in the fourth grade. If you don't start then, by the time they (students) get to high school, you don't have a chance of getting them interested," he says.

The "World in Motion" program is designed to give students in grades four through eight a supplementary math and science curriculum. These are backed up with student projects and SAE engineer school visits.

"Out of that we've had numerous examples of children and teachers exclaiming how this has really turned on a lot of students - the girls especially - who traditionally have not been encouraged or interested in math and science," Mr. Ableson says. Industry support of such programs is crucial, he adds.

As an adage, Mr. Ableson says expanding member skills is equally as important. "SAE has to offer a service for the member, or he or she isn't going to keep paying their dues," Mr. Ableson says. "The technology change and transition we're going through now is a continual thing. You've got to be on a continual learning cycle or you're out of date," he says. "The SAE can provide that opportunity to the various engineers and likewise to industry."

Other goals for the new president include evolving the manufacturing side of the SAE. "Before, the SAE was looked upon primarily as a design society," Mr. Ableson says. "Now, taking on new conferences and expanding our manufacturing efforts, we truly can talk in terms of a product life cycle," he says.

Looking at the life cycle will allow SAE to view the product in terms of design, validation, production, sales and recycling, Mr. Ableson says, and making further strides into environmental ends.

While he admits there is much on his plate, he says he's prepared to dedicate the time and effort necessary to follow through with his vision for the society's future. Luckily, he says, he'll have his wife, Muriel, also an active member of the SAE's spouse's initiatives, along to help. The couple, who reside in West Bloomfield, MI, have four children, two of whom work in the automotive industry. "My eldest son is an engineer with GM and I have a daughter who is a designer for DaimlerChrysler Corp.," Mr. Ableson proudly boasts.