Today, only 14 percent of all undergraduate students enroll in what we call the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math...We can do better than that. We must do better than that. If we’re going to make sure the good jobs of tomorrow stay in America, stay here in North Carolina, we need to make sure all our companies have a steady stream of skilled workers to draw from.Several points deserve to be made here.
Ihe initiative appears to focus largely on science & math. While it's hard to argue against more science & math teachers, I keep wondering about the technology and engineering parts.
It's a question worth pondering: How do we get teenagers interested in pursuing engineering degrees, or better yet, in becoming full-fledged, awesome engineers?
The Dean of NC State's engineering school says only half the students who start an engineering degree actually graduate with one. I'm part of the other half. I got bored after a semester of engineering school and dropped out.
The problem was that engineering, which used to involve hands-on technical problem solving, has come to mean, basically, applied mathematics. Engineering students, in my experience, are taught much more about how to calculate things than they are about how things are made. (There are exceptions, I'm told, including Olin and WPI.)
For a couple semesters as an undergraduate, I worked in the machine shop of an engineering school. It was a boring job — the shop sat unused virtually all the time.
As Matt Crawford explains in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, shop classes started disappearing from U.S. high schools around the time computers started appearing. Computers were the keys to the jobs of the future; shop class was the dirty, blue-collar past. No one ever cut off a thumb typing on a keyboard. Shop classes were easy targets for cuts. Now shop classes survive in some schools, mostly in rural areas, and always under names like "Technology Ed" or "Career and Technical Ed."
I suspect the dropoff in post-secondary engineering enrollment correlates with the disappearance of high school shop classes. A good shop teacher with a well-equipped shop can probably influence more students to go into engineering than any math or science teacher. Math and science are great, but they never inspired me to learn the finer points of engineering the way my welding teacher has.
I'm an Obama fan, but, as with many public figures, it's hard to tell sometimes if he sees his forest for his own trees. Here's a line from his inauguration address, which I blogged about two years ago:
[I]t has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.That sounds like someone who understands the boots-on-the-ground reality: that innovation usually involves getting your hands dirty. Let's train engineers and innovators who know how to do that.