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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Times Guest Column on STEM Education

There was a guest column in the Seattle Times by Bonnie Dunbar, the president and CEO of The Museum of Flight and a former astronaut, encouraging the community to support STEM education efforts.

The column itself was the usual pointless pablum that we typically see in these guest columns. Lots of goals with no action plan. The interesting bit, as usual, comes in the reader comments in which members of the community writes that we DON'T need more engineers because there are lots of them standing in unemployment lines and that engineering jobs are being outsourced to India and China or to people from India and China who come to the U.S. on guest worker visas.

This article is also written completely without reference to the ineffective math education methods adopted over the past ten years.

40 comments:

Unknown said...

One comment on the "excess capacity" of engineers. It ain't true. Sure, there is some export of engineering work to China and India, but by no means is this a large percentage of the total work.

I'm in a small and specialized engineering field, but virtually every engineer who graduates in the field has a job on leaving university with a 4-year degree. Unfortunately, very few universities offer the degree, since it's "old school" and not a hot topic like biotech.

Charlie Mas said...

So what really is the employment outlook for engineers? Which areas of engineering are hiring and paying well and which areas are not? Is there always work available for good engineers when it is hard for others to find any?

Jet City mom said...

my brother is an engineer ( electrical) who has been out of work since he was laid off from Boeing last spring.

He is retired from Air Force and has varied experience, but hasn't been able to find work.
I daresay it may be easier for those right out of college and with lower salary expectations- but since so many engineers I have met preface their conversations with " as an engineer, I...", more so than I have noticed MDs, or architects, attorney's etc do, it isn't something that I would necessarily steer my kids towards pursuing.

Unknown said...

I don't understand what you are trying to say emeraldkity.
Are you saying engineers in general are out of work? How does this relate to the last part of your comment?




" but since so many engineers I have met preface their conversations with " as an engineer, I...", more so than I have noticed MDs, or architects, attorney's etc do, it isn't something that I would necessarily steer my kids towards pursuing. "


What does this mean?

SolvayGirl said...

Honestly. I don't think any of us can predict what jobs will be hot 8+ years from now (when high school freshman in 2010 might be entering the job market).

That's one of the problems with specialized schools like STEM—at least if parents are choosing them for their children because of the probable job market.
Wouldn't it be better to let a child pursue a wide a varied education? Sure, if they love science and math, let them take as much of it as they can. But, if someone is looking at STEM because they think it will help lead to a good job 8+ years from now, they're kidding themselves.

As Joseph Campbell said, "Follow your bliss." Problem is, few kids can have any idea what their bliss might be at 14. Let's not pigeon-hole them too early if we don't have to.

Michael Rice said...

To echo SolvayGirl1972, when my students ask me, "Mr. Rice, why do I need to know this?", I respond with, "I don't know, it is highly likely that the job that you are going to have 6 to 10 years from now when you get out of college has not even been invented yet. What I am trying to teach you is to think and solve problems and perservere and be creative in your thinking."

seattle citizen said...

Slightly off-topic is this article in today's New York Times about various new studies looking at new research into early childhood development, focusing on math learning ability. As we've been seeing over the last few years, it's increasiny evident that cognitive skills form usually earlier (but sometimes later) than we had come to believe.

Here's the article...
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/
12/21/health/research/21brain.html
It's under the fold, front page, below of course the headline article: "Records fall as Intense Snow Blankets Cities on Wast Coast." As an old NEer, I gotta say this makes me nostaligic for it - screws with everything, but shows us a) that nature cares not a wit for human endeavor, and b) nature is quite beautiful: The opening sentence of that article tells us that "it came up the coast on the last weekend of autumn, a ghostly apparition of midwinter, roaring into the solitude of cities and countrysides from the Carolinas to Cape Cod with blizzardlike ferocity. It closed airports, roads and malls and recreated Whittier's snowbound American landscape for 60 million people."

Ach, I'd fly back right now, except that you can't fly back right now.

Happy holidays, and travel safely!

Unknown said...

I can't say what the hot engineering trend will be in 7-10 years, but I can offer a few observations:

1. The boring stuff has been here for a long time, and will continue. Fads will come and go, and some people will make and lose a lot of money, but your basic civil engineering (roads, buildings, environmental) will be here forever. Likewise, my little piece of the pie (naval architecture) will be here as well.

2. The more specialized a person is, the more money they make, but the harder it is to find a job outside that specialty. I'm not arguing against a STEM specialty here--STEM can be extraordinarily broad--just against teaching skills that don't have reasonably broad applications in the outside world. Obviously, problem-solving is such a skill.

3. Skilled labor is worth a lot. We have clients who import kids with metalworking skills from farm country in Eastern Washington or even the Midwest. Why? Because SPS doesn't teach kids to weld and read drawings. Manufacturing doubled in Seattle in the last decade or so. It's bigger than biotech and telecom, but the #1 reason companies move out is that they can't find skilled labor. With the current graying workforce, this will get even more critical over time.

PS I pick on biotech a lot here. It's a wonderful field, but I feel it's been overpromised on how many jobs it can deliver. I don't want to ditch Ballard biotech academy, but I sure would like to see a "learn to build stuff" academy somewhere.

seattle citizen said...

blumhagn,

Your comments are astute about engineering and also skilled labor. I bemoan the loss of woodshops, metalshops, technical drawing classes (not to be confued with CAD, which is great but leapfrogs, in my opinion, the ART of pencil and paper and detail and imagination, jumping right to the machine for answers...)

As you indicate, there are always jobs making things. While mass producation can be outsourced (sometimes), the local economy always needs people who can use tools and sketch designs with carpanter's pencils OR mechanical pencils.

I wonder about the engineering jobs, though, in some hypothetical future:

Can't civil engineering, naval architecture, regular architecture, electrical engineering et all also be outsourced? My brother's an electrical engineer, who graduated old school (seventies) with, you know, actual wires and such, but moved quickly into the more recent computer revolution. His company automates things, working to automate production lines, mostly (ironic, eh? In the eighties I watched video's he'd made of his work automating various sawmills around the NW...where there used to be twenty, now there were three employees who mainly kept the machine running...He almost lost his job last summer.)

Can't all these design functions (except where you need eyes on the ground, say site-mapping) be sent to Bangladesh? No disrespect to our own amazing builders, but there are seven billion people on this planet, and I have a feeling business will scour all corners of the globe (?) to find the cheapest one...

Perhaps that's part of the much bemoaned problem procuring engineers: Those raised here might expect a bigger paycheck than an engineers from a less affluent place, whether they come here as guest worker or remain wherever and phone it in.

rugles said...

Outsourcing is overrated.

High schools teaching a rigorous algebra, trig, calculus, chemistry and physics sould be sufficient for college bound engineers.

Agree that we should bring back woodshop, metal shop etc.

seattle citizen said...

rugles, you say that outsourcing is over-rated. Can you explain why such jobs couldn't be done more cheaply elsewhere? Certainly some joibs are locally based, but others...

Unknown said...

Have you ever had to work with developers who were not in the same time zone, never mind the same office as you? It is almost impossible. It is much easier to work with a guy who sits within your building. It turns out that face to face time is really important, and not just the time in the meetings, but that time at the coffee machine where you talk about ideas and better ways to do things.
My experience has been a better job, on time, and under budget working with fellow employees. Outsourcing leaves you open to misunderstandings (unstated assumptions), last minute delays you did not see coming because the outsourced company was hoping to meet the deadline and did not want to worry you and extra costs.

seattle citizen said...

Tom, thanks for that info. I'm still persistenly curious, tho', because so much else is outsourced:
Some companies evidently don't mind the frustration and other problems experienced by consumers when dealing with overseas call centers, so I wonder if they'd get out their spreadsheets and opt for a cheaper, less exacting "product" if it saved them 60% of contract costs...Yes, as I said, some of the stuff would have to be face to face, but surely there are engineers and techs elsewhere who can design pieces to the final plan, etc.

BUt this is all moot, if someone could produce some sort of spreadsheet of our own, showing the hiring needs, costs, etc of these fields in, say, ten years...

This is one inefficiency of this market: People swarm towards jobs they think there will be an abundance of, then there are too many candidates for not enough spaces....Of course, the employer gets to choose the best candidate, but the others are left out in the cold. No wonder we're starting to mimic some of teh other countries in our insane drive towards "competitive" students, test anxiety, etc.

They've said for years, however, that a well-rounded education, with problem solving skills, people skills, grounded knowledge of economy, civics, arts etc creates the best, most adaptable (for themselves or their emp0loyer) employees. My, how we've strayed

Ach. It's a tough nut.

reader said...

Right on Tom. Not too mention, lots of engineers in places like India... used to be way cheaper than Americans, but that edge appears to have waned quite a bit. Indian engineers (the ones I am most familiar with) now charge pretty high rates for the hassle.... around $40/hour or so in some cases. Perhaps less than some Americans, but it's no dollar a day type of thing either. And with so many Americans wanting to work, and willing to do so for less... that sort of price tag often isn't worth it, esp when considering all the hassles. And then... there's the myriad of holidays they have.... it can really put a crimp in your project.

Unknown said...

Following up on outsourcing:
We do a fair amount of work where we never see the boat until it's done. On the other hand, there's no substitute for seeing the project yourself. From talking to people in the industry, I think that many first outsourcing projects end in tears (over budgets, over time, unhappy customers, etc.). The real test is whether the company continues and fixes the bugs or decides it's not worth it.

I forgot one other thing--everyone, even STEM graduates, need to be taught to write well. I'll be the first to say that it doesn't come naturally to many engineers, but it's desperately needed.

Jet City mom said...

I know many engineers who are out of work- usually they are older than 45 and companies just do not want to hire somebody that they are going to have to pay retirement benefits to in a few years.

When GE and other companies lay off- the older workers for what ever reason are not rehired.

I would not encourage my kids to think of engineering as an undergraduate type program, because I feel that engineering, along with medicine, business, law and education is better served by having a broader based education as an undergrad.
( not to mention that some of the engineers I know, have a narrow perspective and are boring as heck to be around)

Jet City mom said...

the local economy always needs people who can use tools and sketch designs with carpanter's pencils OR mechanical pencils.

Certainly- however when you can pay someone half in one area, what you were paying someone in another- it could be pretty easy to pick up and move - or is it?

Boeing seems to think so.

SolvayGirl said...

I too hope that STEM will have a strong emphasis on writing. I am managing editor for a publication for an engineering professional organization and I can't tell you how often I have to edit submissions for basic grammar and clarity—though some of the engineers write extremely well.

Unknown said...

not to mention that some of the engineers I know, have a narrow perspective and are boring as heck to be around

I resemble that remark!

I would not encourage my kids to think of engineering as an undergraduate type program, because I feel that engineering, along with medicine, business, law and education is better served by having a broader based education as an undergrad.

In practice, many engineers do not go beyond a bachelor's degree. Also, an engineer starting with a bachelor's in another field would be at a significant disadvantage in graduate school. A typical engineering bachelor's requires about 2 years of full-time engineering specific classes, not counting the supporting math and science. Those classes would have to be made up before starting into graduate-level engineering study.

All that said, I do think that engineers should get a broad-based education. It's just hard to find the classroom time unless the school puts a priority on it!

My experience is on the consulting side, not the manufacturing side, but we see significant value in experience. About half of the people we've hired in the last year have been over 45.

seattle citizen said...

"All that said, I do think that engineers should get a broad-based education. It's just hard to find the classroom time unless the school puts a priority on it!"

Which speaks using the "9-16" (high school/college) years to maximum advantage by both providing a well-rounded education (particularly with skills in conceptualizing and articulating, which serve well in most professions) AND a certain amount of specialization, so a student can pursue what they're immediately interested in.

So over eight years, a student gains broad skills and a narrower focus (or two).

I wonder if we're narrowing high school credit requirements too much. Beyond conceptualizing and articulating, it seems that there has to be emphasis also application: a drive to DO something with ideas, with passions, with learned skills.

Why couldn't we mandate credit attainment in some certain skill (or two) the same way we mandate the three Rs (and science!)?

Ideal high school schedule:
English, Math, Science, History, Arts(s), Civics, Skill/Craft

oh, and lunch!

Charlie Mas said...

Hey, while we're at it, why not require classes in parenting, personal finance, and domestic arts (shopping, cooking, and cleaning)?

There are a lot of skills that adults should acquire. Should they acquire them all at school?

Anonymous said...

"Hey, while we're at it, why not require classes in parenting, personal finance, and domestic arts (shopping, cooking, and cleaning)?"

They used to Charlie. And in some schools, these or something like them, are still offered. My junior high taught home ec, which included shopping tips, nutrition and cooking in 7th grade. ALL students, no matter what "track" too this. 8th grade taught sewing. Boys took woodworking and metal work.

Math classes-in ALL tracks included personal finance and broader economics. By the time my oldest was in middle school some 25 years later, boys and girls both got cooking and sewing AND metal/wood shop. In all tracks. I don't recall-it's been some time-whether they still take a break from the regular math curriculum for finance.

It always made perfect sense to me that these things were taught in school-and I'm sorry to see that they are no longer offered, as they've dropped technical ed in favor of a more AP, more rigor and every student going to callege mentality.

I've met my share of "book smart" people who have no clue how to cook, sew, shop or fix things, and have two adult children who chose technical professions over college-they will probably always out-earn me with my liberal arts degree.

SolvayGirl said...

I believe personal finance is absolutely something that should be taught in school as part of a "Life Skills" class that might include basic domestic arts, etc. We're supposed to be preparing kids for life, not just work. A country-wide knowledge of how to balance a checkbook, read a contract and understand compound interest might have kept us from the financial crisis we found ourselves in.

Jet City mom said...

My D in private high school- had I think 7 classes a week-and at times she even had an 8th class ( they were also an hour longer each day than SPS).
Math-foreign lang-english-history-science- & two arts electives- plus PE or a sport.

But no vocational classes- ( although she was a tech writer for microsoft for a while after college), no home ec classes ( although she " taught her college to knit" and she still is a knitting fiend- she also cooks a lot)- but she could be handier with tools. ( she is also applying to grad school for her education certificate- she is going to be fantastic)

WHen I was in school, one of my favorite classes in jr high was co-ed cooking. I think Jr High is a great time to promote activity based learning. Lots of math is taught through learning to sew, cook and calculate materials for a home repair. Social skills were learned in the coed cooking class, that helped with future classes.

One reason why I had a daughter at Summit, was because of the winter activity program- many students went to the mts- high school students who had proved they could handle the responsibility taught younger kids to ski.

You could see both the younger children, who had mastered a difficult skill, and the high school students who had taken on a role as teacher, able to translate that learning into more self awareness and confidence once they returned to the classroom. ( Plus it really contributed to a community feeling in the building)

I don't ski, except for cross country & I would volunteer in the building during those 5 or 6 Fridays, teaching knitting, ( students could sign up for various classes or programs), other offerings might include chess seminars, ceramics and steel drum.

It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know the students on a different level- and we easily could have incorporated basic skills, like changing a tire or mending a hem.

( I know skiing is expensive but for students who wanted to ski- the Parent group had full scholarships as well as donations of equipment and clothing- )

Jet City mom said...

There is a very interesting article in the NYT yesterday about math education with preschoolers in Buffalo.

n one recent study, for instance, researchers found that most entering preschoolers could perform rudimentary division, by distributing candies among two or three play animals. In another, scientists found that the brain’s ability to link letter combinations with sounds may not be fully developed until age 11 — much later than many have assumed.

The teaching of basic academic skills, until now largely the realm of tradition and guesswork, is giving way to approaches based on cognitive science. In several cities, including Boston, Washington and Nashville, schools have been experimenting with new curriculums to improve math skills in preschoolers. In others, teachers have used techniques developed by brain scientists to help children overcome dyslexia.


Wouldn't it be exciting if we could base our curriculum on how & when children learn?

http://tinyurl.com/yhguog2

Charlie Mas said...

I had to do a little plumbing job at home yesterday. It wasn't a big deal, really, I just replaced a valve, but talking about it today I discovered a lot of people would have no idea what to do. That's not good.

I guess the list of life skills should include some basic electrical, automotive, and plumbing repairs.

SolvayGirl said...

I have a friend who has to pay someone to hang pictures as she nor her husband have a clue how to do it. I shop the Goodwill Outlet and 6th and Holgate and find incredible clothes that are there because they are missing a button or have a split seam. There are so many basic skills that many people do not have it's almost hard to believe. Plumbing would be a master skill compared to some of them.

rugles said...

Something to consider Citizen-

...If companies were simply responding to tougher competition (in this case, lower cost suppliers from overseas), you’d expect to pressure on wages AND profits. Instead, we’ve seen wage stagnation (save at the very top) with (pre bust) record profits.

....Similarly, as any properly-trained MBA will tell you, companies can compete on other axes besides cost: convenience, product features, speed of delivery, other types of service. And US businesses have a huge advantage: physical proximity to the biggest consumer market. Offshoring and outsourcing create considerable rigidity and risk (more coordination required, which increases the odds of snafus) Some evidence supports the idea that outsourcing is a fad that US companies embraced whether or not it fully made sense. Most companies find outsourcing to be overrated as a cost saver. A former senior executive at Ethan Allen told me there was not reason for the US to cede anywhere close to as much furniture manufacturing as it did, particularly given the cost of shipping (often two ways, since much of the raw materials come from North America). But in Ethan Allen’s case, Wall Street wanted to hear they were manufacturing overseas, and they complied.

from Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.

seattle citizen said...

rugles,

Channel surfing one day, I happened on the Ed channel (26?) on which they were showing the annual conference of eht Washington State School Directors Association (Seattle, Nov 19-21 2009...at which, you might imagine, our Supt surely sat and listened). The speaker I heard was a professor from Michigan State, one Yong Zhao. He was born and raised in China (or was it Hong Kong) and came here to study and stayed. He was some sort of professor of education and also business and tech.

He said that one thing we can do here, perhaps better than lots of other places, is innovate. This slightly mirrors your comments about flexible production, etc, and how it's often wiser to do it here.

He said that we COULD get out-competed in many areas (I'd guess engineering , or some sorts, might be one: there's little shipping cost for information, for plans and drafts etc...) and that there were people around the world who stood ready to take jobs away from us. But one thing we seem to have in abundance is creativity. We can think of all sorts of crazy things (which meshes with my idea that one reason this country rocks is that we bring together minds and ideas from around the globe and synthesize new ideas from them, plus our propensity to invent and explore and innovate.

Zhoa said that with the emerging niche markets, we might do well to become entrepreneurs, each with a product, skill, or idea that meets the need of some small segment of the world. THAT is where he thought our country could flourish.

Which gels with the idea of teaching our students to be creative, innovative, inquiring minds with the skills and tools to build ideas into fruition and get them into the market.

That and we need plumbers! Charlie's got some issue with his pipes, and they ain't outsourcing THAT to some far-flung corner of the world...

rugles said...

Citizen-

Speaking of creativity, from an article called My Lazy American Students

....But creativity without knowledge - a common phenomenon - is just not enough.

Too many American students simply lack the basics. In 2002, a National Geographic-Roper survey found that most 18- to 24-year-olds could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Japan on a map, ranking them behind counterparts in Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany. And in 2007 the American Institutes for Research reported that eighth graders in even our best-performing states - like Massachusetts - scored below peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, while students in our worst-performing states - like Mississippi - were on par with eighth graders in Slovakia, Romania, and Russia.

We’ve got a knowledge gap, spurred by a work-ethic gap.

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/12/21/my_lazy_american_students/

reader said...

But Rugles, do those other countries educate everyone? No. Do they educate 14% of their students with disabilities? No. Do they expect to prepare everyone for college, and send them all to high schools together with students who do go to college? No. What do they do with those they've decided not to educate. Oh yeah. They simply don't count them. Lots and lots of Japanese don't get educated, or are counted in those comparisons. So, we compare all of our students... to their top half... or worse, their top 25%. Guess where all those graduates in other countries wish to get their college educations? Here, of course... with all of our dummies.

I'm not sure I could home in directly on Iraq or Afghanistan. If it was important to me... I'd surely be able to figure it out. I'd look it up, I'd google it... then I'd have my answer. So what if the guy in the street can't do it cold. That really isn't much of a statistic.

seattle citizen said...

Rugles, I agree with Reader. Throwing statistics around without any reference to which groups were assessed, HOW they were assessed, etc isn't exactly enlightening. I agree that there are areas where "we" (?) might lag behind "them" (?) but without knowing the details it's hard to do an honest comparison.

Yong Zhao specifcally mentioned some of the Asian countries you mention, and said that THEY had a "creativity gap" that they were trying to fill by teaching less content and more inquiry, etc: They recognize that they have drained their students of the ability to think creatively in their drive for content-based basics.

And let's not even mention (okay, I will) the reported stress many of these students undergo as they sweat placement tests that will determine their entire future. Here, at least, there's always been a tacit understanding that someone can change course, start a new path, any ol' time in life. In some of the countries you mention, students are tracked into professions (or trades) for LIFE, and it seems without the free-thinking that would allow them to change and grow professionally.

So I propose we spend less time looking at the four WASL categories, and using them to judge and change EVERYTHING about education, and spend a little more time protecting and nurturing those things that teach our children to be independent, flexible in a changing world, adaptable to new things and able to transition (have you noticed how careers are shorter, without the lifetime guarantees of yore? Kids need to know how to move with the economy and with what moves them.)

WV uses an automotive metaphor when advising students entering the work force: flort!

rugles said...

Might have done the article an injustice. Most of it is about comparing the teachers own experience with american born students versus foreign born students, not statistics. Its not that they are dummies...

....Teaching in college, especially one with a large international student population, has given me a stark - and unwelcome - illustration of how Americans’ work ethic often pales in comparison with their peers from overseas.

reader said...

And so... you compare the average American college student... with the top 1%er from the foreign country. Why are you surprised that a person, who is likely to be a high achiever from another country, who is motivated enough to leave all the comforts of home... outperforms the average homegrown kid? Of course the average American student isn't especially motivated, and enjoys all the comforts of home. I would totally expect the foreigner to be more motivated... on average, of course. Sounds like you don't get out much Rugles. Go overseas sometime... you'll see plenty of unmotivated students... the world over. Further, you'll see entire cultures of low work ethic. It's just that those unmotivated students aren't the ones who wind up here.

Sahila said...

A bit of thinking while the kids are going nuts, not able to focus on playing/experimenting with one new acquisition at a time...

What I have noticed here is the trend to specificity BEFORE generality is mastered... and I think that's happening in schools...

Case in point... was working at Microsoft earlier this year... on a project at the Centre for Information Work, showcasing prototype software.

The unit was trying to instal and implement a new exhibit, one that had been some years in the planning and creating...

Problem was... the manner in which it was presented was completely inappropriate for the human brain to grasp...

An overwhelming amount of very specific information thrown at the audience...

I work with patterns... I noticed that they had created an inverted pyramid of information/experience...

Working with the concept of one overarching goal, held up by three pillars of focus, broken down into seven (8 now) specific areas of development... 1 to 3 to 7 to 21...
problem was, they had jumped straight into the mass of development and then tried to work their way back to the overarching goal... from the specific to the general...

And the intended audience could not cope with that (the space and format of presentation added to the intellectual, psychic and physical discomfort)...

As an outsider and a researcher, I could see this error immediately... I suggested they turn the pyramid of info right side up and it worked... it amazed me that they had not known/recognised what they were doing...

But I see this phenomenon in the way reading and math is taught here to children too... too much emphasis on the specific too early... not enough play with the general to build knowledge and comfort with the material...

I dont think any person should be asked to specialise in high school... I dont think that should come until after the completion of an liberal arts/humanities/classics undergraduate degree...

Anyway... wishing you all the blessings of this sacred season as we pass from the deepest darkness into the light...

Namaste

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