Jun 19, 2014

Technology and Engineering: The Working Class Part of STEM

My father told me once that the book, Atoms in the Family, changed his life. In case you don't know: This is the biography of Enrico Fermi, the physicist who split the atom in the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. My father said that the book made him realize he could be a physicist, not just an engineer. I found it curious that my father had such a hierarchy in his mind regarding STEM disciplines.

Nearly 40 years later, I noticed a similar perspective to engineering in my first and second generation students (mostly Vietnamese and Hmong women). They felt they couldn't get off their pre-med track to study engineering because their parents felt (as my father did) that engineering was too lowly for them. The idea that engineering is a lower status in the STEM world is not new. Authors from Margaret Mitchell to Samuel Florman talk about engineering's low prestige value.

Of course today, so many people tell me that engineering seems unattainable, challenging, and almost intellectually elite. What a shift! With a national interest in recruiting more students into STEM, particularly engineering, it's worth investigating the various views and realities of engineering and the education of engineers. This is especially valuable if we want to draw from our increasingly diverse population.

Let's actually start our story with technology. This area of the STEM acronym has historical ties to the trades: the blacksmiths, goldsmiths, carpenters. The trades are now crafts and the term, technology, relates to new technologies such as medical, power, information, and agricultural. What all these professionals share is an intimate knowledge of properties of their particular technology as well as mastery skills that give them the ability to manipulate, construct, repair, and/or maintain devices related to their technology.

With the new technologies, a need for engineers arose. They were responsible for creating new products and systems to leverage the advantages of those technologies. In fact, there was an explosion of engineering degrees during the Industrial Revolution, often matching one-to-one with the new technologies: petroleum engineering, electrical engineering, aeronautical engineering, etc.

After WWII, the technologies became complex enough to require more theoretical foundations. As the University of Michigan's Engineering for a Changing World report (for the Millennium Project) indicates, courses shifted from a more practical education, taught by experienced engineers, to more ones taught by applied scientists with superficial reference to "design, technical writing, and professional ethics." The pendulum swung from the blue-collar-like trades towards the more elite sciences.

Today, this swing results in three main complexities in the education of our future engineers:
  1. Theory without practicality: A student entering engineering in this post-war curriculum would be taught more theory than practice. For students without previous experience in practical design with the technology, their designs become more theoretical exercises without the teeth of experience: from either personal experience or from the experience of instructors. In our increasingly virtual world, we find that the kids with the math and science education to make it into college engineering often have little real-world experience. Often coming from more advantaged backgrounds, they play with flight simulators rather than radio-controlled planes, race on video games rather than soap boxes, and hire repair services rather than fix devices themselves. In a way, they are rich enough to have the education to handle the theory but are too rich to need to make and fix their own things. 
  2. Impostor syndrome: Some students come to engineering logically: They are strong in math and science but want to use it to do things rather than research. For them, the post-war theoretical curriculum comes easily. Their good grades result in good jobs, but because they lack experience with typical practices, design challenges, and the realities of the technology, work in "the real world" is difficult. Women often fall into this category, leaving engineering later because they feel like impostors: engineers on paper, but not "real engineers," unfamiliar with manufacturing methods or material technologies to build what they design on paper. 
  3. Unprepared for theory: For students coming in with hands-on experiences with the technology in question (through hobbies, jobs, or other circumstance), the theory can ground them so they can engineer completely new products. However, often, these "creative-ables" struggle with formal coursework, especially the higher levels of math required to become "engineering eligible." These students are often rich enough to have things but poor enough to not be able to pay someone to repair them or get the top-of-the-line technology. They share a common background with some of the best engineering minds in history: Thomas Edison, Rudolf Diesel, and Philo Farnsworth. Each benefited from non-traditional formats of learning and were able to complement their education with simultaneous job experience. Today, students from rural areas, immigrant communities, and lower economic groups often have this can-do spirit and hands-on experience, but they face challenges with traditional educational methods, language barriers, and financial burdens. This is the untapped potential of the country, very interested in STEM but not proficient in engineering prerequisites. According to Business Higher Education Forum's Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates report (2010), over 15% of 12th graders fall into this category.
Ironically, the best approach may be one that pays homage to the working class roots of Technology and Engineering professions. Education is the great equalizer. Labor unions recognized its influence on upward mobility and requested more land-grant institutions that would transform their hands-on technology skill set into an engineering profession. But now it's not just the working class who can benefit. Engineering is no longer just for the lower class or the upper class; we need all those with the potential and interest to be able to enter the field and contribute.

Consider a three-prong approach to teaching technology and engineering so as to cast our widest net:
  1. Provide technology experience early 
  2. Provide engineering opportunities for all  
  3. Provide simultaneous job-education opportunities, especially for those with financial needs
The following posts in this series will provide guidelines around teaching technology and engineering in K-12 with these goals in mind.

Want to learn more about incorporating Technology and Engineering into your STEM program? Contact us at info@engineersplayground.com or 612-321-8809 and let's chat!