In his State of the Union address President Obama said, “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job.”
As part of our Rebuilding America series discussing bringing jobs back to the US, I have been talking with middle school and high school teachers and mentors to get their thoughts on the state of technical education in the US public school system.
What can our schools do to encourage students to pursue careers in tech? And if students are interested in electronics, are there opportunities for them to learn? How well are our schools preparing those students to pursue a college degree in engineering?
Wayne Rust, the Director of Engineering for Millenniata, lives in Lindon, UT and helped a team of students competing in the Innovation Generation LED Challenge. “I noticed the advertisement for the challenge in one of UBM’s publications (EDN?) and immediately contacted my friend who teaches at the local Junior High School,” he said. “My daughter was in his class and I wanted a way to work together with her on some fun stuff.”
Wayne’s team went on to win the Challenge. You can read more about the Challenge, his team, and their project on the Innovation Generation site. Here are some of his thoughts on the state of technical education in his area:
On the state of electronics education
Q. In your opinion, does your local school system do enough to interest students in pursuing careers in electronics? If not, what would you suggest be done to improve the programs?
A. Yes and No. Yes, because I do believe that schools are trying to add new programs such as TSA that target those interested in electronics to explore it more. However, I believe that the schools can do more to reach out to other students who may gain an interest once exposed but do not already have a desire to do so. I believe that cross teaching such as introducing Ohm’s law to teach an algebra concept or having students document a new MEMS sensor for a technical writing class and then follow up on that with a hands-on demonstration is critical to this. I have noticed a good trend in “real world problems” that students work on, but it is all on paper and they do not get to experience the “real world” part of it.
Q. In your opinion, is the quality and quantity of the education in your local schools adequately preparing students to pursue higher education and eventual careers in electronics? If not, what measures do you think could or should be taken to reach that goal?
A. No. I do believe that the schools are adding more technology teaching in the curriculum but they are not teaching students how to recognize, evaluate, and solve problems. With technology changing yearly, students who learn how to use the technologies alone will be left behind by the time they graduate. We need to help students learn these critical thinking skills by teaching the core concepts through using technology and not focus on the technology as the end.
Q. Please describe any particular electronics projects or programs you have heard about or participated in that you think were especially useful to students.
A. Just as in sports or music programs I believe that competition is a very good way to push students to do their best and investigate more than they would in a classroom setting. Competitions and other types of programs allow students to apply what they have learned, show them what they need to know, and challenge them to search out that knowledge on their own. Although winning is always a rush, a well done project can bring as much pride as almost anything else I know.
I have not directly participated in other electronics projects aimed directly at school age youth, but did have one son and daughter help me with the Microchip PIC32 Challenge a couple of years ago. We decided to create a true biomimetic snake robot. The lessons they learned, not only about electronics and robotics, has helped them in many ways. Since then they have forgotten the C code and how to trigger a GPIO port and how to manipulate a PWM pulse, but, they now know much more about how to approach and solve problems and have a feeling (and knowledge) that they can conquer anything thrown at them.
On mentoring the LED Challenge
Q. What is your background and how did you get interested in electricity and electronics?
A. I graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering but have only recently jumped back into electronics after 25 years in software development. I built my first crystal radio when I was 8 and opened a electronics fixit shop out of my bedroom when I was 10 where I attempted (and actually succeeded several times) at fixing radios and TVs from the neighborhood.
Q. How do you feel you as a mentor improved the students’ learning experience?
A. As a mentor I used my experience to allow them to get past the brick walls. They would approach the challenges and try to solve the problems themselves first, but there are sometimes that they do not have the breadth of knowledge or the patience yet to get past the sticky parts. Keeping them on track so that they would not loose interest was also a primary task for me.
Q. Would you act as a mentor again?
A. Yes. It was exciting to see the look on the student’s face when something turned out right. That smile is worth everything.
Q. What could the electronics "community" do to help others become mentors for students interested in engineering and science?
A. I love to see resources available like John Titus’ electronics tutorials and sites like Instructables that allow for step by step instructions.
Wayne Rust is currently the Director of Engineering for Millenniata, Inc., maker of the long life M-DISC recordable DVD. He has been involved with leading edge technology companies around the world for the past 25 years, applying solutions to real world problems. In his spare time, Wayne enjoys helping kids learn about robotics and electronics, and in doing so expand their horizons.