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Rethinking Education in Technology

We've been reading for years about the inability of mathematics and the natural sciences to attractAmerica's youth into serious study and careers. The latest I saw was a March 31st Wall Street Journal article (www.wsj.com; the exact link requires a paid subscription) describing how even children of very successful technologists are shunning such careers. As a former educator in these fields, it pains me to hear such news. There is an elegance about much of these subject areas that should be experienced by many more than actually do.

The Wall Street Journal article cited two reasons for this trend. First, young people are perhaps more cognizant than most of us when it comes to outsourcing jobs. Second, many say that studying math and science is just too hard.

The Journal noted that former reason can be highly ironic, in that it cites cases where the technology-educated parent has engaged in outsourcing activities at their company even as they encourage their children to pursue careers in science or engineering. The children, certainly logically but perhaps incorrectly, observe the results of their parents' actions and concluded that there was no future in these fields.

However, it's difficult to have similar sympathy for the too hard argument. I have graduate degrees in both hard and soft sciences, and my conclusion was that the hard sciences required no more intelligence than the soft. However, the hard sciences did (and likely still do) require a greater level of persistence and commitment. I couldn't crack a book open the night before a mathematics exam and expect to do well. I had to keep with it, rewriting my notes and doing problems almost every night.

But this is not my definition of hard. In my case, it was a combination of a labor of love and a desire to learn and achieve. Others who succeeded no doubt had other reasons. But in any case it does require different attitudes and expectations.

It also pains me to admit that science education itself may be at fault. This failure has less to do with the subject matter than with the way it is taught. In the several universities at which I studied, there were courses whose principle purpose was to weed out the class. At one university, for example, the sophomore circuit theory classes were designed to reduce the size of the electrical engineering class by sixty percent. Those who didn't succeed were not given a second chance.

This was, and is, preposterous. Flunking out over half of a class demonstrates less an aptitude for engineering than it does for competition and stress. Certainly some portion of those left behind would have made at least adequate engineers, had they not been abjectly discouraged in this manner. Can we afford to continue this practice?

Then there is the problem of the lack of technology skills in the sciences in many schools. I recall one of my undergraduate statistics students coming up to me at the end of the semester and saying, I had no idea this could be so easy. I gave up on math when I had a teacher in junior high who went out of his way during each lesson to say how much he hated it.

That is a much more intractable problem, and I offer no solution. I think it requires nothing less than a major redesign of education in general, and I don't see that happening. Yet if producing more technically trained professionals is a serious goal, then nothing less will suffice.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 04/02/2005 at 1:15 PM


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