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Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?

By Joshua Arnow
Created 2010-10-29 10:54

I don't think the reasons elucidated below by Kathi Sierra [1]are limited to the United States. Her blog Creating Passionate Users [2] is excellent! The Graphics are a riot. JA

 

Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?

Whatweteachflat [3]
If you studied math, science, or engineering at a four-year college in the US, much of what you learned is useless, forgotten, or obsolete. All that money, all that time, all that wasted talent. If all we lost were a few years, no big deal. But the really scary part is that we never learned what matters most to true experts in math, science, and engineering. We never really learned how to DO math, science, and engineering.

Toward the end of his life, legendary mathematician Jacques Hadamard [4] asked 100 of the top scientists of his time how they did whatever it was that they did (math, physics, etc.) Hadamard's survey found a massive disconnect between how we teach math and science and how mathematicians and scientists actually work. The majority of his contemporaries apparently claimed that using the logical, left-brain symbols associated with their work was NOT how they did their work. These were simply the tools they used to communicate it. What they used to do the works was much... fuzzier. Intuition. Visualization. Sensation (Einstein talked of a kinesthetic element). Anthropomorphizing. Metaphors.

We are in sooooo much trouble.

What experts use to do their work are the things we don't teach. We focus almost exclusively on how to talk about the work. Obviously this doesn't mean nobody learns to do it... we have plenty of expert engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, who become great either in spite of faulty teaching or because they lucked out and had excellent, clueful instructors and mentors. But we also hear more and more teachers, experts, and employers railing against the sorry state of our advanced technical educations today. The problem is, many of these same teachers, experts, and employers have a tough time articulating what's wrong, let alone how to fix it.

And what do we do to try and improve things? We just do MORE of what's wrong. We redouble our efforts. We drill and test students even harder in facts and rote memorization. We work and test them even harder on using the tools for communication (e.g. code) rather than the tools for thought (e.g. intuition, visualization, etc.)

Our educational institutions--at every level--need drastic changes or we're all screwed. The generation of students we're turning out today need skills nobody really cared about 50, 40, even 20 years ago. Where we used to prepare students for a "job for life", now we must prepare students to be jobless. We must prepare them to think fast, learn faster, and unlearn even faster ("yes, that drug was the appropriate way to treat the XYZ disease, but that was so last week. THIS week we now realize it'll kill you.")

The Waterfall Model of education is failing like never before. We need Agile Learning.

Three of the many people who've been leading the charge on this are Roger Schank [5], Dan Pink [6] (his "Whole New Mind" book is a must-read), and computing/learning guru Alan Kay [7]. One of my favorite Alan Kay notions is something like this, "If you want to be a better programmer, take up the violin." He claims that the more time he spends playing music, the fresher and better his approaches to engineering become. He's an outspoken critic of engineering students focusing too early in their education, because he believes that with a more liberal arts education, you get metaphors and ways of thinking and seeing that are vital to your later engineering work.

I'll end this with two quotes:

From Jason Fried [8]:
"Hire curious people. Even if they don't have the exact skill set you want, curious, passionate people can learn anything."

And from Jacques Hadamard:
" Logic merely sanctions the conquests of the intuition."

If intuition is the heart of what true experts do, then shouldn't we be trying to teach that? Or at the least, stop stifling and dissing it? And yes, I do believe that we can teach and inspire all those fuzzy things including intuition and even curiosity. But we are running out of time.

[UPDATE: Martin Polley [9] brought up the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson [10], and if you haven't seen it already--I urge you to check it out ASAP!

Mark Fowler [11] was surprised that I didn't bring up the book What the Best College Teachers Do [12], and I can't believe I left it out of the post. I believe it is the single best book on helping someone learn. When we had our most recent author's bootcamp, it was the one book we gave to all attendees. Thanks Mark.

I highly recommend the comments to this post -- they're insightful on all sides, agreement and disagreement and all points in between. And before you tell me I'm advocating for throwing out fundamentals, memorization, facts, logic, etc... PLEASE look again at my venn diagram ; ) This is about brain balance, and addressing much more of the brain than just the narrow channels that are the parts of the brain that actually "talk." ]

Posted by Kathy on November 2, 2006



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