Educating the next crop of engineers

Posted: 04.07.08

As I pondered this ponderous title and the challenge it represents for me to lead the round table at COFES it got me thinking about how we learn.

Studies have shown that children learn fast and do so until they become 19 to 20 years old, then their brains become less flexible and learning takes longer, and it’s more difficult. By the time one reaches full adulthood and middle age  you really have to work at it to learn new things; languages are particularly difficult because of the contextual and grammatical differences, they don’t easily fit our well honed models and views of the world.

Engineering is a language, as is medicine, music, and art. And not everyone is able to learn those subjects as easily as others,  someone good in art may do poorly in medicine, although there does seem to be a natural linkage between engineering and music.

As we grow we learn not just facts but also falsehoods, philosophies, and fears. And those fears, philosophies, and falsehoods prevent us from learning other, usually important, and often enriching things – we are cast into a channel of self imposed ignorance.

It’s these falsehoods that are the greatest barrier to children entering the field of engineering. These localized common wisdoms found in school yards, barber shops, and local hangouts inhibit and stifle a child’s potential. They are taught that they can’t do certain things, or that such things are too hard, or not cool. The teachers are presenting their own failures as fact, and sadly embedding the crippling idea, don’t try you’ll only fail, into supple young minds.

Some however are so drawn to a vocation or profession that no amount of obstacle, peer pressure, or parental abandonment can dissuade them. They are the lucky ones, the ones who have found a passion early in life and managed to pursue it, and probably do well at it. And whereas we can’t ignore these people, they don’t need as much of our attention as the left behinds and passed over. The challenge is plucking the marginalized children out before they get too stuck in self inhibiting ways and can’t be inspired.

And so with regard to engineering, I think there could be simple tests, tests that are not formed like a test (and certainly not an element of the disastrous No Child Left Behind fiasco.) Rather testing would be coupled with sensitivity training for teachers, counselors, coaches, and other adults involved in the management, guidance, and education of children. The goal would be to identify those students who have a natural knack for problem solving, mechanics, and systems. And even though the theme of this rambling diatribe is about how to find and encourage the next crop of engineers, it is not constrained to just that narrow field of endeavor. The abilities we’re looking for apply equally to an orthopedic surgeon, and maybe even a composer.

In the past, in most countries including the United States and especially those countries with centrally controlled economies, aptitude testing was the norm. Children were evaluated at various grades, often as a way of directing them into studies where they would be best suited to make the greatest achievement (and subsequent contribution to society.) That concept has been abandoned in the US as being narrow minded and limiting. The idea being that testing and directing children towards particular areas of study limits a child's self expression. Admittedly, using testing to sort children into rigid career paths or trade schools can be dangerous, cruelly limiting a child's future. But to completely abandon the idea of testing in order to nurture and foster children's aptitudes is also a mistake. I think it’s especially a mistake in underprivileged schools where children may not have a strong home life and learn about the world on the streets from people no better educated than they are. These are precisely the kids that need focused attention early in their careers.

One of the excuses for not providing such evaluations and guidance for children is the limitations in staff and of teachers. The teachers are over burdened with large classes, and administrative tasks such as checking home work, grading papers, submitting lesson plans, that eat into their time to offer any personal guidance.

So I have a proposal.

We hear the lament of industry that the US does not have sufficient technical people and therefore we should open up our immigration policy to allow more foreign workers in (H-1B visas.) However, if the industry would apply some of its resources to augmenting the schools with special information and teaching programs, evaluations of students, and guidance for students that show promise, I think US industry could find all the technical people it needs. The problem for US industry is that such a program would take at least 15 years from first contact in grammar school and US industry wants an instant solution. Therefore, I propose the government grant the opening up of H-1B visas but with the provision that US industry pay a special tax to a fund for the evaluation, training, and most importantly, guidance of US students (regardless of where they were born.)

I further suggest that our professional societies assess their members an additional fee (some do this now as an educational fund) for student evaluation programs that are combined with student guidance programs.

I believe there are hundreds of thousands of potential engineers in grammar, middle and high school right now. In our ever more complex and challenging world -- and especially so in the US -- we need more engineers and technicians than ever before. We have these bright young flowers, let’s find creative and imaginative ways of encouraging them before they get lost in the weeds.

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