Teaching Tomorrow's Engineers Today

Everyone seems to know that one needs a solid background in math and science in order to be an engineer.  Math and science are part of what I call a student’s “ingenuity toolkit” and professional engineers draw upon this knowledge every day in their professional life as they set out to design, create, invent, innovate, and solve problems.  Yet, there is an important piece of that ingenuity toolkit missing from the public’s consciousness, and that is to have students that aspire to be engineers study technology during their K-12 education.

Just because a student is good in math and science doesn’t mean that they would like being an engineer.  Further, with the dropout and transfer rates in engineering programs at the university level so high, we owe it to our younger students to teach them more about what engineers do and how they design and develop new technologies.  Part of the reason we import engineering talent from other countries is because students do not explore technology, innovation, design, and engineering in every K-12 school.

I’ve asked several engineers what abilities they think are most valuable to them in their profession day-to-day.  Many cite things like the ability to create and innovate, the ability to apply math and science to practical design situations, the ability to work as a member of a team, and the ability to solve technological problems.  While math and science courses K-12 provide an appropriate math and science background, where are students given opportunities to explore and develop these other, sometimes intangible, things that seem to be so important to professional engineers?  In other words, where are they given the opportunity to develop and apply their ingenuity?

Many do not realize that there are Technology Education programs in some schools that introduce these things with a direct approach and give students a taste of what it would be like to be an engineer.  Teachers in such programs challenge their students everyday with problems designed to spur creativity.  I’ve also asked a number of engineers if and how they got interested in the field as children, and they almost always say, “I was the kid that was always tinkering with things around the house and driving my parents crazy in the process.”  That tinkering by the way, is early development of the ability to conduct critical analysis, an ability that is at the heart of engineering.

Technology Education programs at all grade levels seek to afford students opportunities to tinker, to discover how things work, and to explore the designed world.  At the elementary school level, students may learn about the basics of electricity by actually building simple circuits or about simple machines designed for specific tasks.  In middle school, students may explore concepts in more detail, perhaps by designing and building a model of a bridge or a gliding aircraft.  In high school, students may have opportunities to design an affordable home, take something apart to see how it works, or design and build a robot that would be used for a rescue mission or some other specific purpose.  They also can and should solve problems of their own choosing and direction.  All of these experiences are akin to the processes of engineering.

This is the type of learning that can enhance a future engineer’s experience, but also the type that cannot be included in the typical upper grade level math or science classroom for one main reason: math and science teachers generally do not have the time and most likely do not have the interest nor the expertise needed for in depth study of technology.

There is another underlying issue related to this discussion, and it is the under-representation of women in the engineering field.  One of the reasons the study of technology and engineering should happen early in elementary school is because research shows that negative attitudes about such topics stem from a lack of experiences at primary grade levels. Unless Technology Education is required off all students at all grade levels, it will be tougher to get young women interested in engineering and technology related fields.  This is the foremost reason that elementary educators will also need the tools to be able to integrate these concepts into their lessons.

Technology education and the development of students’ ingenuity can have other broad reaching impacts for all students.  While engineering is considered by most to be a challenging field, there is an element of technology education that is good for all to know.  It is important for all students to understand the nature and process of technological development and activity on some level.  It will help them make informed decisions as consumers about whether to buy a hybrid car or whether to invest in that new high-tech device.  Finally, it would help them to develop the needed in any job such as teamwork, creativity, and the ability to apply knowledge.

Right now, most schools have two parts of what may be considered the ingenuity toolkit in place in math and science.  What’s needed to ensure future economic prosperity and technological innovation is the third piece, the study of technology.

Versions of this post have appeared on NJ.com and the New Jersey Tech News.


1 comment to Teaching Tomorrow’s Engineers Today

  • Ivan Fidler

    Some interesting points made regarding the type of learning technology education offers, especially that math and science teachers may not have the time for offering extensive study of technology. It makes me wonder if there are ideas out there on how engineering schools can show recognition of our contribution, through their admissions process. I tend to see on college websites that students’ transcripts need to show specified quantities of core academic subjects, and that documentation of awards and activities are encouraged. The latter is particularly of value for students whose technology education classes lead to such opportunities.

    Nonetheless, when it comes to electives outside of core academic subjects, it seems difficult to find engineering schools’ websites that indicate that they will look at these per admissions. There are understandable possibilities for why this is not presently indicated on the sites I’ve explored, such as the importance of providing all applicants maximum opportunities to be on a level playing field. Not all have access to technology education. Yet, I wonder if there are appropriate ways for colleges to acknowledge the value of these type of electives (technology education and others as well), that can be put into place? This may especially resonate with parents, guidance counselors, and others who if they see these things, will be encouraged to discuss the value of such electives to students’ learning, scheduling, etc.

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