The debate over the paucity of engineers available for highly skilled design and manufacturing jobs in the U.S. has been raging for years. I’ve seen fingers pointed at causes ranging from the dreary image of manufacturing work and American pop culture to lackluster academic preparation and a sense of capitulation to the rising economies of the Eastern hemisphere that churn out technicians and engineers en masse.
But in the past week I’ve run across some explanations that may get closer to the heart of the matter. One of these reports, titled “Why would-be engineers end up as English majors”, appeared on CNN’s Website. The point of the story was that the way we educate engineers is rooted in such a strong sink-or-swim mentality that many high-potential students drop out too early because there is no support from academia or the engineering community to get them over the initial hurdles and keep them on track to become engineers.
One student at the University of Illinois at Chicago recalled: “The first thing the (professor) told us was, ‘You should expect to see this class dwindle down as the semester goes on.’ It was the first thing they told us.”
Driving this message, according to the article, is the way in which science and math programs are designed to literally thin the ranks of students who enter the programs. A major component of this is that university systems tend to reward professors who conduct research and publish papers more highly than they reward those who teach effectively.
I understand the arguments that can be made in support of the current process: engineering and science are tough. Those students who can’t hack it should get out of the way to make room for those who have greater innate instincts for technological subject matter. After all, the Chinese aren’t cutting their students any slack.
The reality is that Western culture is simply different. Maybe one day we’ll become as hard-nosed as the Chinese when it comes to relentless studying techniques, but it won’t happen any time soon and it won’t come without accompanying detriments to creativity — at which we tend to excel.
Somewhere between the relentless pressures of the East and the laissez-faire attitudes in the West lies the answer. Ultimate expectations need to remain on par with the Eastern mindset, but the nurturing and cultivation of potential from the West needs to be just as hard coded into the process.
After all, if Einstein — a true underachiever in academic math and science — hadn’t lived in an age when he could easily support himself as a menial patent office clerk while he worked on theories so far advanced it took most of the world decades to even begin to comprehend, where would be today?
I believe the world continues to produce numerous Einsteins. The problem is that we expect them all to develop their expertise on their own, as Einstein did. A little more nurturing from industry and academia could go a long way toward developing the next Einsteins.