Reinventing engineering education in the 21st Century

Those readers who know me personally will know that I am very passionate about promoting engineering amongst students, and in particular I’d like to encourage more girls into engineering. Well, whilst I was visiting Jaymes Dec’s FabLab at Marymount School earlier today (the topic of a future post), I inadventently found out about seminar / panel session this evening called ‘Reinventing Engineering Education in the 21st Century’. Since discussing the issues of engineering education is right up my alley, I went along.

It was amazing to be in a room with other people who are passionate about inspiring young people to do engineering.The panel was organised by University Ventures, a Venture Capital firm who wants to design a new type of engineering university around the idea of the Maker movement – the idea that engineering learning can and should be structured around hands-on design and build work. They hope to develop a university where theoretical work is perhaps taught online and then students go to a ‘makerspace’ to design and build things in order to directly apply their learning.

One of the panelists was Debra Sterling, recent founder of GoldieBlox. She has an interesting story – she was a young mechanical engineer until around a year ago, when she quit her job to develop GoldieBlox, an engineering-based toy for girls. She wants to combat the image that engineering is for boys by targeting a very young age group. Indeed, children’s toys are something that have always bothered me. They are a fast way of instilling cultural stereotypes in children, and all too often we give little thought to the fact that we shower our little girls with dolls and our little boys with bulldozers. What message are we sending? (Again, those that know me may have heard me rant about this topic before!) So I was excited to see her approach. If anyone has a little girl in their life and would like to encourage her to be excited about making stuff from an early age, think about visiting Debra’s Kickstarter page and supporting her cause (and getting a GoldieBlox toy once they enter production).

One of the questions posed to the panel was: “What do you think public education would look like that encourages students to do engineering?” Immediately, High Tech High came to mind for me. It is a public school (albeit a Charter school which doesn’t have to play by the normal rules) and its students are more than twice as likely to choose STEM-based degrees at university when compared to the state averages.  Why? I think its because of two things, fundamentally linked to what the panel was discussing. Firstly, the fact that the nature of design is embedded in their whole school, which means students learn to approach all problems with a problem/solution/test and evaluation/modify/repeat method, rather than a problem/answer method. This makes them realise that this process is always ongoing, even in the real world. Secondly, their learning is hands on. They build stuff, they make stuff, they don’t just talk about it. At HTH this is true in all the subjects, and as a result students realise that engineering and creating is not intimidating and that it is connected to all of the other fields of study.

I think engineering design is particularly relavent for science, as to me science and engineering go hand in hand. If we incorporate more engineering (more design processes, more hand-on creation) into science classes, I believe that it could do two things: it could make science more relevant to students by connecting it to real-world problem solving and it could also make the field of engineering more transparent and less intimidating for the average student.

Overall, this session was an interesting evening which really got me thinking. I don’t think the panelists had all the answers, but they didn’t claim to. However, it was great to hear a large group of people asking the questions which I often think about to do with how to engage students in engineering education. I hope to do this by adopting innovative approaches to science education, but it was interesting to see what some other passionate people were thinking about this same question.

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4 responses to “Reinventing engineering education in the 21st Century

    • One day, Nordin! One of the people from University Ventures was actually from Sydney, so perhaps we can convince them to fund something at home…! Maybe our amazing, multi-disciplinary STEM school? 😉

  1. While many of us appreciate and enjoy exploring knowledge for its own sake, the reality is that we all need to find employment to support our desires and interests at some point In life. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 1.7 million new and replacement doctoral-level jobs and about 0.9 million master’s jobs will open in this decade, comprising 4.7% of the total openings for new and replacement needs. In addition, 8.5 million openings are projected for bachelor’s degrees, at 15.6% of the total.

    If we consider that over half of high school graduates enter college, “following their heart’s dreams”, most of them will be disappointed when they encounter a job market that can accept only one-quarter of ALL the jobs available, at best. Many will be stuck with huge loan obligations, while being over-qualified and under-paid in positions that only allow them to “just get by”.

    This is a major reason why I believe that we must redirect the STEM emphasis in the high school curriculum away from the “college-degree pipeline” into a more flexible approach that uses additional dimensions of “Basic Workplace Skill Sets”, and “Applied Career Preparation Pathways”. These would slice up the core content information and knowledge needed for each of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subject areas into additional levels of complexity, and into a variety of workplace applications.

    A ladder of “Basic Workplace Skill Sets” would clearly identify the methods, practices, and “habits of mind” needed for entry into several occupational levels. These six levels would be progressive in the complexity of the content topics, and in the mathematics preparation needed for each. The “Master/ Professional”, “Engineer”, and “Scientist” skill levels would require extensive post-secondary effort, of course.

    But if the STEM course content were also identified at a “Technician” level, students would know that being competent at that level is a requirement, along with post-secondary training, for that kind of career. Likewise, developing skills at the “User/ Operator” level would have expectations for graduates entering the workforce right after graduation. Finally, the “Home & Consumer” level would match the core content standards for ALL students upon high school graduation.

    By labeling or tagging each specific topic, lesson, or textbook page with an identifier of what the achievement expectation is for knowing that “nugget” of essential information, learners could set realistic occupational goals, and follow more efficient pathways in pursuit of their futures. They can become successes as they step up the achievement ladder, according to their efforts and interests, rather than being failures for not having exited out of the college pipeline into a waiting job.

    So I think that a comprehensive STEM curriculum framework should provide some direct goals for the 75% of learners who will NOT be finding higher education degree occupations in this decade.

    • An excellent point. However, the picture becomes even bleaker when you consider that many of the jobs once done by technicians and operators can already, or will, be done by robotic machines. STEM is not going to be a major source of jobs for most people.

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