Saturday, March 7, 2009

when I grow up i want to save the world

"like let's say, let's say law school doesn't work out, this will probably be my second choice" middle school student Thomas Escarpeda speaking about an engineering career on KC Currents, 1 March 2009
The other morning, while consuming my daily dose of yogurt, granola, and radio news, I came upon a piece about a new program to increase interest in engineering as a profession. There's been a wealth of stories to suggest the US has fallen way behind in science and engineering education but the peeps coming through the door at the House of Many Rivers, Volcanoes, and Earthquake Maps is any indication, one needs a Master's degree just to be qualified for the tech position. Either that, or once hired, firms decide they really don't like the independent thinking that employing scientists brings to an organization so after a few years of questioning along the lines of "has anyone in this organization ever tested whether or not on-line safety training actually reduces accidents?" they are told that perhaps they are better suited for a career in 'sales'.

The radio piece explored a learning approach whereby middle and high school students are allowed and trusted to tackle open-ended problem solving. It makes for a noisy classrooms, provides higher-level critical thinking, and has been around, as a concept, for years. It works, but requires dedicated teachers, even more dedicated administrations, and students bent on learning. All skills which can be taught but the 'teach to the test' approach has to be thrown out the window which can make some teachers, not to mention parents and students uncomfortable.

Education programs designed to train engineers frequently seem to focus on building robots. Robots are cool, who doesn't love a robot, but this kind of thinking tends to perpetuate the idea that robots are going to save the world. Which is kind of at odds with the notion that perhaps it's going to be left to humans to save the world.

"the first thing we do is hire all the lawyers to kill the engineers. Then we kill the lawyers." [paraphrasing Henry VI, Part 2 | Act IV, Scene 2]
Now generally I'm a nonviolent person, but one would have to agree that many of the messes that we find ourselves in can be traced back to either shitty engineering designs by folks who apparently never take a walk in nature, or attorneys suing for the right of unfettered capitalism to profit from toxic materials (and assets). I think if we're going to train a new generation of more robust thinkers, then science and engineering programs ought to spend as much time having students explore other ways of thinking, such as art, as they do with the 'facts'. Facts are really the best approximation given the data at hand. Science is the story that binds these elements together.

Why do you never hear a child say, "you know, when I grow up I want to be a poet, and if that doesn't work out, then maybe a playwright." If the world is to be saved, who would you have save it?

kc currents
project lead the way

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