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 Rustis 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.
The core focus of the school system is certainly to teach the basics, but in a world with myriad career opportunities it is also essential to expose students to as many options as possible in a way that piques their interest. Budding engineers used to tear apart the family radio and discover the electronics themselves. Our technology has gone too far for that -- a kid can't learn the technology by tearing apart an iPod.
The earlier we get electronics into the curriculum, the more students will be curious enough to go beyond the front interfaces of all their handheld tech and want to see how the gadgets actually work.
Don't underestimate the Egyptians.
Even today, moving lots of rocks without prime movers like engines is an enormous technological feat even assuming it is all slave labor.
In ~2000BC without modern science it was a mind boggling.
And of course there were spin offs then too, they could not have done it without a lot of scientific thought, though some may have been more empirical, e.g. iron mettalurgy.
Spending a lot of effort moving rocks: agreed. Developing technology that expanded to other uses: very different. The space program gave us specific goals to aim at, whether people knew they needed the long-term end products or not, and pushed development beyond the immediate market vision. A lot of the money *did* wind up in education, even more if you count technological development, along with the portion that employed people all over the country. Finally, I don't believe pyramid building encouraged people to dream bigger and expand their ideas; the space program did.
Which is what Europe did long ago and emulated by the US later.
That is why at the beginning of the 20th century while the US was overtaking the world in industrial production and innovation in production, most science Nobel winners were Europeans.
Also note quite a few initial computer related discoveries/ concepts and inventions happened in Europe.
I could not disagree more. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, education and skills. Perhaps it would be nice of companies to provide training assistance but it should not be a mandate. Also, just because companies cannot find "non-citizens" for a job does not mean we should bend immigration laws. Truth is, there are PLENTY of qualified citizens for the jobs. The real issue is that there are not enough skilled workers willing to take the low pay that companies want to offer. I personally have seen H1B's take good engineering jobs from qualified Americans just because the non-citizen was willing to work for less.
Not cynical, history bears me out.
Incessant pyramid building destroyed Eygpt.
From being leaders of ancient world in maths and grammer, long before Islamic invasion, temple building destroyed the kingdoms of Indian subcontinent.
Same with the Mayans.
If we look at the countries in Asia which built up strong electronics industries, they had at least one thing in common: they started with very heavily investing in their education and they did so when they could apparently least afford it, when there were so many other areas crying out for funds. Except, they understood that if they invest in education, you invest in the future and all those other important things will come, in time. Not only that, but when the benefits arrive, they will be more sustainable. What is the point of building a modern hospital if you can't staff it and keep it going? Although the world may be getting better at it, that mistake was and still is made time and time again when aid is frittered away with no appreciable sustained benefit.
Going back to my point, education should not be seen as a cost but as investment. The problem is that both the political and the economic world is mainly driven by short term incentives and there is no real motivation to invest long term. Politicians and CEOs are taken to task over what happens now and not what will happen in 10 years time.
So, are there good schools and universities? Of course there are but that only truely matters if anybody has access to them regardless of their background. I suspect, there are a lot of kids who never get a chance to develop to enywhere near their full potential, if they are born on the wrong side of the tracks.
In case of the US, it's still a very good place to be if you have a bright mind and have some great ideas. Unfortunately, it is often easier and definitely cheaper to suck away talent from other countries (who are more than willing) than develop them locally. This causes problems for both countries. The clearest example is doctors, where medical students from developing countries (often after studying overseas), leave their country and enter medical practice in developed countries with much better income and carrier prospects.
That's a pretty cynical view, but I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw's definition: "The power of accurate observation is often defined as cynicism by those who don't have it".
I don't think the space program was that much of a waste, but the real problem lies with a government that has constanty sold America and American jobs in the name of "free trade". Nothing is free, and you have paid a huge price for it.
The seeds of destruction were laid long ago. With the moon shot "dream".
America wasted a whole generation of brilliant and passionate men and women on satisfying some politicians' ego.
With it were wasted a few billion dollars of tax payers money, which could have gone into better education and research in the universities.
And don't talk about spin offs from the space program. Those same driven folks would have invented the "spin off" technology anyway.
The moon shot was the pyramids of USA.
Hate to be blatantly blunt, But until the powers that be and the market figures out the "Get laid or get paid" (GLGP) problem facing many STEMs professions, most smart students are going to shriek and flee towards careers in fields like finance, medical, legal, and business that have successfully solved the GLGP problem. You do not hear them continually sniveling for students.