The U.S. education system, the bedrock of the electronics industry, rests on shaky ground. Industry executives and educators at engineering schools agree that the quality of the U.S. students entering college has been steadily declining, compared with students in other developed nations and even several less-developed ones.
We lack the good math and science teachers who truly can inspire high school kids to study hard science. Bachelor of science degrees earned in U.S. colleges no longer denote the same level of achievement as similar degrees granted in Europe or India, partly because higher education in America spends too much time teaching the basic science students missed in secondary schools. Once at a college, engineering students in the United States, sidetracked by touchy-feely electives and cosseted by lowered academic standards, often collect a diploma despite skipping several fundamental courses. "This could never happen in India," said M.S. Anath, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.
The academic level of talented students who go to elite schools, such as MIT and Stanford University, is not the problem. The kids who are falling behind are the average high school students and college undergraduates the same type of students who, in the era of the G.I. Bill, lifted American engineering to world technological leadership.
Of course, bellyaching about educational decline is an old story. But, today, the disparity between those who are best educated and those left behind is greater than at any point in recent history.
It's time to stop framing the deterioration of K-12 education as a threat only to the future of the electronics industry. The issue is bigger. "The educational divide," said Ed Frank, vice president for R&D at Broadcom Corp., presents "a clear danger to democracy in this country whose foundation is an educated populace."
This erosion in educational rigor is finally beginning to appear at the other end of the spectrum the highest level of academic institutions. It's showing up, not only in students' scholarly work, but in basic skills, in the capacity to understand "work" and appreciate "life."
Among the biggest complaints from those hiring young people fresh out of college is their lack of business sense, an inability among graduates to understand the deeper implications behind every job. They often fail to imagine that behind each engineering problem, there is a human being a customer desperately seeking a solution. "Science is not our business. Solving problems for our customers is," said Carl Schlachte, CEO of ARC International.
Disturbing to many, the root cause of such myopia may be much deeper than it appears. Even leading engineering schools have begun to realize that the problem a lack of compassion and a reluctance to communicate with others, or "soft skills," as they are often labeled in business parlance cannot be taught by putting students through a summer internship or requiring credits in business administration. As the old song goes, "You gotta have heart."
But heart call it practical know-how, call it common sense is a major casualty of the downward spiral in U.S. technical education.
Dick K.P. Yue, associate dean of engineering at MIT, acknowledged that some of MIT's incoming students, with little work experience prior to college, tend to be "less mature" than their predecessors. In fact, he said, "Some don't even understand what a 9-to-5 job means."
MIT now realizes that despite the intellectual brilliance of its students, many of them are "not as prepared" as they should be to succeed in a practical setting when they enter internship programs.
MIT hopes to attack this weakness by going back to the basics. Besides a number of nonengineering courses, the school is now offering an optional program called UPOP, for Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program. It's designed to "provide sophomores opportunities to practice and/or appreciate engineering and business outside the academic context and prepare them to hit the ground running in the workplace," according to MIT.
It's unclear that how much such character traits learning to be good human beings capable of teamwork, able to reach out to others and communicate effectively can be ever taught. The college level might already be too late.
But one thing is sure. The industry is in dire need of technical managers who can talk with customers, cooperate with others to manage and prioritize projects, and speak publicly and effectively engineers with heart. After all, "We hope to choose graduates on the grounds of who they are as human beings, and what things are they are excited about," said Chris Wray, engineering director at TTPCom.
By Junko Yoshida (firstname.lastname@example.org), European bureau chief for EE Times