The Fix for Technical Education

Most engineers in my generation will not have direct experience with what I will be describing, and that is the shame of technical education in the latter part of the 20th century. Early last century the progression into a productive career was clear. You needed to walk yourself down to a business that built things, apply for a job, apprentice at a trade and become proficient. This was often a precursor to going to college and studying engineering, people used to actually know “how” to build things when they went to college.

25 years into my working career I can say I have known countless engineers who only understood formulas. Theoretical education was the norm when I was in engineering school. Practical exercises were not common and this was true across our country.  This transition from practical to purely theoretical correlates with the dramatic technical decline of our country. I cannot emphasize enough how many times I heard an Electrician or Telecommunications Technician wonder if the engineer that designed a project had ever built anything. Anyone in a construction trade understands what I am referring to. And we wonder why we have fallen behind the rest of the world in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).

I have had the privilege to witness and participate in three different initiatives that are a template for change. It was exciting to see a return to teaching bright technical minds how to do something and thereby see how to innovate. The first was launching Project Lead The Way (http://www.pltw.org/) at the Affton School District. We are in our third year of traditional engineering and our second with a Bio-Tech/Bio-Med program. Students are engaging in hands on activities: designing and building models, learning to use medical equipment and constructing different types of architecture. In their four high school years they will have more hands on engineering experience than most college graduates in my generation. All this happens while preparing for the high level math and science required to progress to the next level. You can see it in their eyes, they find it engaging and are excited to talk about it.

This summer I helped lead an internship program for the software company I own (video link). We hired three high school students from a pool of applicants and charged them to build a piece of prototype software. They used programming concepts, languages and collaborative techniques they had never experienced. They thrived while building a real app that solved real business problems for some of our customers. This experience reinforced my belief in “constructive education”, education that also adds value in some tangible way. The video speaks for itself and I am looking forward to expanding the program next year, potentially to multiple teams under a common student project manager.

The third experience was seeing my son and nephew head off to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a recognized leader in technical education. They have made it their goal to focus on faculty educating students versus performing research. Their students have every class led by a professor, no TAs allowed, a far cry from my experience. Half of their freshman coursework is directly hands-on. Within their first week of school they were both building robots and writing programs to control devices. I find it notable that these experiences are the ones they were excited to share, not the calculus or physics discussions they were having.

There are many other initiatives out there changing the shape of our future. Some schools are hiring elementary science teachers whose focus is to make science the experience it should be for youngsters. If we can put the fun and joy of exploration back into their early contact with technical areas, kids are far more likely to choose that path later. They will associate that first experience with science for their whole lives.

We often hear how we have fallen behind. I do not believe it is entirely due to a lack of fundamentals. I think there is also a loss of the wonderment of making something. We managed to take the magic out of engineering and turn it into something cold and useless. I think part of the solution is what I see happening, teaching the next generation how to be productive not just how to talk about it.