Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Screw Shakespeare, Learn Engineering Skills

So FrauTech in her guest blog at Scientopia discussed why there aren't more engineers in the blogging. One of her first comments was by Colin who brought up the very valid point that US schools are falling behind in STEM fields in high school but in fact, most high schools don't teach engineering. DrugMonkey followed up with a comment that engineering didn't necessarily need to be in high school. I couldn't disagree with this statement more. This brings up the point I would like to make:

Screw Shakespeare, Learn Engineering Skills.

Learning literature skills like interpreting Shakespeare is waaaay less important for students to learn in high school than engineering skills. The world needs more people to be able to build stuff and advance society rather than another person working on yet another interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You is great, but I digress).

Aside from teaching the specific discipline topics (mechanical, civil, electrical, chemical, etc etc), engineering teaches PROBLEM SOLVING. What does the world have plenty of right now? Problems. Clean water, clean energy, food sources, climate issues. I don't think having students recite Macbeth to a contaminated well is a good way to clean it. However, showing the students how to build a filter and a mini-windmill to pump the water will teach them real skills, like solving problems.

I remember reading an article in the paper a few years ago about a study done about 10-15 years ago for junior high students. Half of the students took the normal curriculum, whereas the other half had 1 task in their "science class" (why couldn't they call it engineering?). Their task was to figure out what it takes to launch 15000 lbs into space and what minimum velocity it takes to orbit earth. I can't find the link to the study right now but basically, an overwhelming majority of those students went on to university degrees in engineering and science (most engineering), and a significant number went on to get advanced degrees. The control group had only a hand full of students go into engineering/science careers.

That study was a clear indicator of what happens when you introduce engineering (under the veil of a "science class") at a young age. We need more of that at a young age in society and a lot less Shakespeare.


  1. When properly taught, literary interpretation is another form of critical analysis. In theory, students are being taught how to read for content, author biases, and secondary meaning, all of which are applicable as an engineer. Unfortunately, most schools aren't teaching this properly, and instead want students to regurgitate a canned interpretation.

    Likewise, many early science classes focus on rote memorization, with little chance for creative design or hands-on experimentation. Part of that is a lack of resources in many schools, and overburdened teachers. Outreach programs can help, but often the schools they can reach are not the ones with the most desperate need. The more standardized testing takes over the educational mindset, the more every subject they don't quantify (or cover less frequently) will suffer.

  2. That's true on both fronts. Literary interpretation is a form of critical bias and most schools are not doing it effectively. But they still have an opportunity in school to develop those skills (whether intended or not). In most high schools, you don't even have the opportunity to learn anything about engineering.

  3. Yes, yes, of course there's not enough time, and too many tests and so on ...

    But, that's been an excuse for too long. Engineering courses (for the younger set) are a fantastic opportunity for a capstone course. Writing, reading, science, math, critical thinking, world-wide thinking, all of it can come together in an engineering project.

    I'd argue that engineering as a whole is the discipline that can bring everything together. And be fun.

    Question: Is it up to us as grown-up engineers to bring these engineering classes to the schools? I think we need to do more volunteering in the classrooms to show kids about engineering. Demonstrations probably aren't enough though ....

  4. The Society of Automotive Engineers has a pretty excellent program: http://www.awim.org/ I've done it as a volunteer for 4th-5th graders, and it's fun for all.

  5. Thanks for the tip. I'll look into that.