Rallying the call for increased STEM

Bill Klein -July 09, 2012

There has been a lot of attention in the press of late on the state of the engineering profession.  In late April, I heard from Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, and Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, on one of the Sunday morning news/talk show panels.  They both stated that there were technical based jobs waiting in Silicon Valley because there were no qualified applicants.  Given that their statements are correct this can only be received as a call to arms for the entire engineering community.  The rallying call has been for increased STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.  

Disgruntled engineers have voiced negative reaction to several blogs that advocated increased STEM instruction stating that they could not advise a young person to enter the engineering profession. All reported some form of bad experience that they blamed on corporate greed and/or breakdowns in society.  I wonder if they would have had similar experiences in any for-profit business setting.

My advice to any student searching for a vocation is to find a field that you truly enjoy.  I have been very fortunate in my 50-plus year-long career as an engineer because I never went to actually “work.”  Even the worst job assignments had fun elements and that should be the goal of anyone searching for a vocation.  With this object in mind it is foolish to assume that all students should be directed to the engineering field.  This, however, does not relieve the education systems from pressing STEM instruction.

The four elements of STEM: Math, Science, Engineering, and Technology form the most solid foundation for success in any field.  I start the list with math because it forces the student to master the self discipline to arrange facts and rules in an order such as to reach a conclusion that is beyond question.  The apex of this is the field of plane geometry.  It is of no concern that as soon as the student leaves the final exam he cannot recall the conditions necessary to show two triangles are congruent, however, given a years worth of drill in forming proofs he should be able to demonstrate an unquestioned conclusion from a collection of facts and rules, and this skill will prove invaluable the rest of his life.

The scientific study in any field requires the mastery of observation.  Science class should ground the student in the art of observation.  It is of equal value if the observation is through a microscope or through a telescope.  The mental discipline is to find the similarities and the differences.

I consider engineering to be the union of science and art.  Design, in any media, is an art form.  The skill of imagining that which has never existed is the heart of engineering.

Technology is the practice of turning the engineer’s design into reality.   

As the student makes progress through a STEM based curriculum individual classroom activities may move further from the pure technology based zone, however, the STEM core must always be present.  The end product is a member of society that is capable of making decisions based on logic and careful observation.  The transformation from emotional based decision making to fact based decision making cannot be accomplished in a single year of intense STEM but must be nurtured over time.  While STEM emphasized curriculum in middle school and high school may cause a slight increase in job-market available engineers in the near term the real solution is to start STEM based instruction in the primary grades.

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