Battling for Young BrainsAugust 15, 2006 By: Melanie Martella, Sensors
In 2003, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, described a Quiet Crisis in engineering and science education. Namely, that although engineers and scientists are vital to our economy and society, we aren't fostering interest in these fields and we need to change how we attract and educate these technical people.
The National Academy of Engineering followed this up in 2005, with its report "Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century". If you don't want to the buy the entire report, you can still skim the recommendations. We need more engineers and we need to change the way we educate them.
Industry Experts Speak Out
The Industry Experts panel, a regular part of National Instruments' NI Week, was dedicated this year to the question of educating future engineers. (In past years, regardless of the stated topic, engineering education kept cropping up in the Q&A sessions.)
Ben Streetman, Dean of the University of Texas Austin College of Engineering, pointed out that we are importing as many engineers as we produce domestically. We need, badly, to draw more people into science and engineering. We need to help people understand what engineers do. Back in the day, kids tinkered with cars or built things with Heath kits or did other things that involved building actual stuff. What kind of outlets do today's children have to build and debug physical objects?
Leah H. Jamieson, who is the Dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University, talked about Purdue's new Department of Engineering Education. I'm paraphrasing here, but she made the point that as the profession changes, education must change too. The qualities that make a good engineer have now expanded beyond possessing technical knowledge to include innovation, flexibility, good communication skills, engineering ethics, leadership, and the ability to be a team player. The new department is trying to figure out how to foster these qualities within an educational framework.
She also talked about the EPICS program, which pairs engineering teams with community organizations to bring technical know-how to bear on problems in the community. This involves applying technical skills in a societal context (including how to discuss technical matters with nontechnical people) while also stressing the engineer's and university's roles as citizens. Students get to use their skills in the real world (and many of these projects are long-term) and the community is exposed to what engineers actually do.
Mary Wells, who is the Director of New Schools for the Texas High School Project (TSTEM), talked about the project's plans to create schools with better science and engineering education. Please do follow the link--it's a fascinating project and I wish it every success.
Jens Maibom, General Manager of LEGO Education talked about the European experience of science and engineering education and the need to start introducing children to math, science, and engineering very early on. Get 'em when they're young and curious, make the learning relevant, and support the heck out of the teachers.
Speaking of LEGO, LEGO Education has formed a strategic collaboration between academia and industry to use robotics to teach children about technology, math, science, and engineering. The plan is to use LEGO's next-generation Mindstorms product (and further generations of same), coupled with tons of teacher support, to help students learn key concepts by building and programming robots within the context of lessons. The intention is to create a continuum of materials to provide this kind of hands-on learning from 1st grade up to the university level.
A Very Big Whoop
I find these initiatives both inspiring and heartening. Engineers do amazing things every day but they aren't necessarily good at tooting their own horns.
Someone in the audience asked the panelists what the point of science and engineering education *was*. The answer? It isn't just about producing scientists and engineers. While that's very important, all of us live in a technologically advanced world and we need to understand this important element in our lives. It's also about fostering curiosity and teaching problem solving. Learning how to reason things out, how to weigh alternatives, and being comfortable with uncertainty and open-ended questions are all part of problem solving and that's an important life skill for everyone.
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