Great example, Jon. I look your approach of showcasing the different layers of engineering involved in common everyday products. It's easy to look at a water bottle and say, no biggie, it's just a simple, plain old water bottle. When you look at the end product through the lens of all the other factors involved, it's a great lesson in full lifecycle of engineering.
Thanks, Beth. Earlier this week I visited the Academy for Math, Engineering, and Science (AMES) in Murray, UT along with Brian Fuller of EE Times. What an interesting place. We met with students who asked a lot of insightful questions about the Chevy Volt Brian and his son had driven to Utah from San Francisco. The students also got to look at the insides of the Volt after Brian brove it into the automotive-shop area of a co-located high school. We must continue to offer young people specialized educational opportunities such as those at the AMES and similar charter and magnet schools. And we need to encourage technical practitioners to consider teaching as a career. Even mentors and volunteers can make a big difference.
I agree. I also think teaching in a hands-on way as opposed to rote book learning is critical for fostering a curiously and a passion for STEM careers. Seeing the insides of the Volt and coupling that with a lesson in the engineering struggles around commerically-viable EV technology goes a lot further with a student that reading some dry case study online or in a text book.
The kids were surprised to see the shape of the battery used in the Volt because it looks like a large "T" with a slot in the middle. I guess they thought the battery's shape would look more rectangular. We explained the battery probably had to accommodate structural parts of the vehicle and also leave enough space in the "trunk" for groceries, luggage, and so on. Thus the "different" shape. The students hadn't thought about that.
I agree with the hands-on approach. I think some of the robitic competitons are a great way to encourage youngsters to choose to learn more about Math & science. I also think parents can choose different toys that also encourage problem solving. Legos, connects and toys that require thinking and solving are so much better than video games.
Thanks for that fantastic example, Jon! I teach technical management to undergraduate students and when they arrive as eager high school graduates I have found they bring along three (3) primary misunderstandings. This situation was observed by 19th century humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw when he wrote, "The trouble with the world ain't ignorance, it's just that people know so much that isn't so."
(1) All of the answers exist. Teachers prevent students from searching for the answers during exams to make sure students have learned the material.
(2) Different subjects are not related. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are separate subjects and they are completely different from topics like Social Studies, Music, and Phys Ed.
(3) Working with others is cheating. Cooperation and teamwork are for the playing field. Academics is a solo sport and only the super-smart kids are good at every position; and I'm not one of those.
It takes several weeks to de-program the students using real-world case studies such as your Water Bottle to convince them that these three facts aren't so. Only after these impediments are removed can we get to the task of training a competent, confident team member who is eager to define current problems, design effective solutions, and work collaboratively with other systems experts with the goal of making things "better."
William, glad to see your comments. I think your "three things" are worth posting for all incoming freshman - not just the engineers. I've been fortunate to teach science in elementary schools for a number of years and was pleased to see that at that level, the kids have not yet learned to compartmentalize their thinking quite as you've described it - but I can see that they are starting to move in that direction. It would be nice if we had a measure for our students not just on their academics, but their "social and organization functioning" as well. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
I'm right with you. My wife is a kindergarten teacher at the same small K-12 charter school that both of my children matriculated through, so I socialize with a great many of the faculty. Kudos to you for teaching science in elementary school -- what a great time to capture some of that "gee-whiz" enthusiasm for science and math. I know that the science curriculum is taught by great teachers using curriculum that emphasizes project-based learning and collaboration in the sciences. Perhaps it is the other subjects that treat science and math as separate, for at least at our school the connectedness is most definitely emphasized.
I guess it could be a systemic problem within the education process or perhaps sometime through that magical transformative process we call puberty our young folks learn how to differentiate socially and that spills over into the classroom. I'm painting with a broad brush, but many of my incoming college freshmen truly believe there is an "App for Everything" and having a high wage allows one to purchase solutions to any problem. It really does take a while to convince them of the wide array of opportunities available to them beyond working a register. Maybe as high-school students with limited exposure to industry they think retail is just about all there is. After introducing them to the playing field, they can begin to discover their talent and passion for various positions...
@williamweaver: I'm impressed that you were able to condense a critique of modern educational methods into three concise points. I think you nailed all three.
Not only do compartmentalized teaching methods fail to prepare students to tackle real-world problems -- they're not even good for teaching the subject matter they're supposed to teach. The essence of learning is making connections between things; physiologically, it's all about forming new synapses between neurons. The more connections you form to a given piece of information, the easier it will be to recall that information later.
I was fortunate enough to go to a university which encourages teamwork and interdisciplinary learning. My favorite professor was well-known for giving open-ended test questions which required actual engineering thinking to solve. Even with IIT's emphasis on developing real world problem solving skills, many students had a terrible time in his class, because they were acustomed to test questions that could be solved using a cookie-cutter approach.
I was sad to see that, since he retired, his class has been written out of the curriculum. (They retired his jersey, so to speak). I hope the university will find a way to keep students' brains working. I heard there were concerns about the effect his class was having on some students' GPAs, but having a wonderful GPA in classes which don't challenge you to think like an engineer doesn't prepare you to solve problems in the real world.
Thanks for the link to IPRO, Dave! What a fantastic program! Our tiny interdisciplinary major here at La Salle was modeled after the much larger program at James Madison University. It is really heartwarming to learn of additional "inter" programs in academia. There is more than a bit of irony that such interdisciplinary, project-based education programs do such a poor job of networking and collaborating among themselves. Maybe we are just following the natural dynamics that govern the isolated pockets of replicated organic matter within the primordial soup... I only hope that with increases in social networking technology it doesn't take millions of years for these types of collaborative educational approaches to coalesce and share their best practices.
Explaining science and engineering is an art in itself. I am reminded of a scene in the movie, "The China Syndrome," in which Jack Lemmon's character (a nuclear engineer) tries unsuccessfully to explain how a nuclear power plant works to a TV reporter. Sometimes, it's hard to pare all that knowledge down to a simple, coherent statement. Hat's off to you, Jon, for using such a visually understandable example.
Reading your terrific summary of how so many inter-related technical disciplines are required for "everyday things" was very satisfying.Your water bottle example takes the mundane and exemplifies it into a blossoming bouquet of an entire curriculum. Bravo.And to Professor Bill Weaver'scomments about re-training the mis-informed, also I say "Amen".I have long pondered sadly, the advancement of our collective knowledge, and realized the staggering percentage of truths that are simply passed over as "givens" by so many.Jon, you expanded somewhat on the bottle-cap, but being a plastics and molding guy myself, I have to add the magic of the bottle itself.I remember being quizzed by one of my mentors about 30 years ago, as he held a solid clear plastic molded cylinder , about 1" in diameter, and about 3" long, with molded threads and a wide flange at one end, and he asked if knew what it was. He then launched into a lesson similar to what you just finished, explaining the multiple steps in producing blow-molded bottles from pre-cast slugs.Inspiring discussions like this, to eager young minds, are a natural fuel for future innovations.
Jim, There is signiifcant science and engineering behind the design and filling of the bottle, and you are correct that there is a lot of engineering behind the manufacturing of the cap and the bottle. Sometimes the final produced parts are small compared to the massive machines required to produce them. Sidel PET bottle machines produce enough bottles in an hour to bury you and require months / years to design and manufacture. The machinery portion of the final product is a forgotten item that employs thousands of workers around the country.
It is really neat to think about all of the jobs along the entire chain of any product. There is so much that goes into something a simple as a bottle. It boggles the mind to think about all of jobs and tasks associated with a more complex product such as a car.
Because I've spent 30 years in small, portable electronics, you definitely have hit on a long standing wonder of mine; that being the complete design, fabrication, manufacturing and assembly of the average 2 ton automobile; not to mention that major car companies (ALL of them) put out new models EVERY YEAR.For people like us [design engineers] we can understand the magnitude of this – but for the general population, it has become an expectation.Vastly underappreciated, and a little sad, actually.
Well stated, JimT. "You can only see what you understand" has long been a guiding principle for me as an educator. When we start out the semester viewing a complex system, say a power-plant for instance, it is easy for the young students to file that away in a mental folder called "power plant" and then continue to scribble propaganda on the outside of the folder: Dirty, resource-consuming, global warming, dangerous, asbestos, radiation, pollution. Only after we take the time to "open" the folder and go through many of the subsystems and explore their design, installation, coordination, maintenance, and upgrades do they begin to use concepts like: Innovative, challenging, difficult, quality, good-paying, useful, life-saving... This is not a slam on my fellow educators but ask a random person on the street what comes to mind when you say the word "Water Bottle". I suggest not many will offer words like Design, innovative, cost-effective, safe, convenient, inexpensive.
Hopefully SpaceX will bring Sexy back to space travel. For now I've removed all problems associated with space and rocket flight from my General Physics classes. Nearly all of my freshmen students have no concept of the word "rocket". They can do Harry Potter, but few know that we've gone to the moon.
William, for most of the products we are looking from application level angle, so we are not able to realize the pain behind such inventions. Design of a power plant or space vehicle is much complicated, but how many of us have the patience to know how it’s designed or how it’s working. As long as we are getting uninterrupted power supply or service from satellites we are satisfied. I think we have to educate the students in school level itself, then only they will know more about science and motivated towards it.
Thanks for your comment. Yes, many product designs go that way, but when talking with young people about engineering I want them to understand that even the simplest products require much design and development work before a factory can turn out the product as a routine.
John, this is indeed a very good example that not only is able to demonstrate the large amountmof engineering needed to produce a simple water bottle, it is also a very good vehicle for theahing folks to consider unintended consequences of various decisions. You didn't mention that, but it is one more application for your excellent example.
Bill, it's a little scary to hear that the initial reaction of students to the word powerplant is "dirty, resource-consuming, global warming, dangerous, asbestos, radiation and pollution." I suppose to some degree all those words are pertinent, but I would hope your students would also consider the words "light, heat, cooling, communication, transportation and imaging," among others, which are equally as applicable as "dangerous and pollution." That's why we need good teachers.
Chuck, my report was a generalization, but not an exaggeration. Unless the student has a parent that works as a scientist or engineer, technical concepts are too often topics that were covered in high school but didn't stick. I teach "deep behind enemy lines" at a private, liberal-arts school that does not offer engineering. Students that make their way to our little integrated technology management major often have not considered a career in the sciences, have had no exposure to engineering, and their high school experiences with physics, chemistry, and biology did not engender fear, but hate. I'm having a very bad day when I hear any student regardless of major commiserate with their fellow students while walking in the halls with phrases like "I hated physics in high school" or "I'll never use chemistry again. Why do they make us take it?". It's one thing to lose promising students, but it is another when they are asked to comment or vote as citizens later in life when it comes to a question of technology. When the majority of our students get their technology education from the media and political action organizations on campus it is quite an uphill battle against the talking points.
I will second your call for good teachers. It's OK to discover a student does not have a passion for the subject you teach. It's not OK to present the material so rote and rigorously that you increase the ranks of the opposition.
I strongly agree with you on both points, Bill. Bad teachers (or profs) can ruin a student's passion for a subject through lifeless presentation of the material. Regarding the "story of stuff:" If this is what our high school kids are watching, it's no wonder we're having trouble getting American kids to major in engineering. For some reason, though, kids from other countries seem to come to the U.S., major in engineering, and ignore that kind of "stuff."
Chuck... I should have included the link to this YouTube video "The Story of Stuff". My kids were shown this video in their high school science class and is the type of propaganda I am talking about. Many of my undergraduates do not arrive as a blank slate -- they already have a negative bias toward science, engineering, and business.
@williamlweaver: Although the "Story of Stuff" video is full of cringe-inducing moments (e.g. "resource extraction... is a fancy word for trashing the earth"), its overall point that every form of industrial activity has social and environmental consequences is undeniable. And I can show you places where resource extraction, unfortunately, has meant trashing the earth -- not because this is inevitable but because the companies involved were irresponsible in their actions. The conclusion of the video actually promotes science and engineering (green chemistry, zero-waste manufacturing, etc.) as solutions to the problems which are mentioned. So it's at least possible that some stufents might be drawn to science and engineering as a result of this video. However, I agree that the hysterical tone doesn't contribute to a reasonable discussion of the issues which the video brings up.
Hi @Dave Palmer -- I agree with your points. "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility."
I can conceive of opening up a semester-long course with this video, assessing the student's thoughts on production and technology, spending the next 15 weeks examining the responsible use of technology, and then measuring their thoughts on the same video at the final examination. As you suggest, for some, The Story of Stuff can serve as the beginning of a rewarding career. For many others, it's a statement of how our culture is not an emergent melting pot, but designed and controlled by a nefarious 1% that seeks to maximize their gain at the expense of the 99%.
We didn't invent these schools of thought. But the increasing availability of communication tools has amplified the rhetoric of both sides.
I agree on all counts, Dave. Yes, there are environmental consequences to all industrial activity (this is hardly a secret). And, yes, the video's tone, as you so accurately say, is hysterical. The problem is that it comes off as an indictment, rather than a serious effort to solve any problems. It's also shot through with a lot of meaningless expressions ("a linear system can't work on a finite planet") that can't be challenged because they, in point of fact, make no sense. It seems to me there must be a way to get this point across in a balanced fashion that would make college students think logically about the issues, rather than react on an emotional basis.
@Chuck: While the statement "a linear system can't work on a finite planet" seems unnecessarily jargon-y, the point seems to be that since natural resources are limited, a process which leads from extraction to disposal (instead of recycling or reuse) will eventually use them up. This is clear enough; in fact, it borders on a tautology.
The problem, as you point out, is what to do about it. I think most people who have thought about it realize that many aspects of modern consumer society are not sustainable. On the other hand, most people also realize that a return to a small-scale agricultural or hunter-gatherer society is neither possible nor even remotely desirable. And, in fact, for the majority of the people in the world, the problem is not too much "stuff," but not enough "stuff" -- not enough clean drinking water, not enough sanitation, etc.
There aren't any easy answers to this, but you're absolutely right that, if we are going to find the answers, we need logical thinking and discussion, not just denunciation.
Jon, yes you have narrated the pain behind a product in simple words. But normally all such pains are only for the first product or invention. There after the process are just copying and imitating. I mean once the system or product is in place, just copying or following the same procedure.
Jon, I hope you are including a discussion of Engineering Ethics in your presentation to budding engineers & scientists.
In many cultures, denying water to those who need it is considered a Sin. eg in the Koran. Making profits out of selling drinking water is vaguely obscene even though it is as prevalent in the so called 'advanced' Muslim countries as in the West.
Probably the most important aspect of a bottled water product is the possible use of the container to store tap water after the expensive contents have been drunk.
Bottled drinking water perfectly sums up our 'advanced' 21st century ethos.
Is this what our noble profession serves today. In much of the previous century, engineers had a somewhat higher calling.
"The next to lighten all man, may be you." - John Masefield.
Hi, Ricardo. Good point, but probably more morality than ethics, although we could argue back and forth. If I have time I bring up ethics, but that topic is probably over the heads of junior-high students.
Drinkable tap water is another engineering marvel, which is not available everywhere. Where my wife is from in El Salvador, tap water is not available on a daily basis (more like a few hours every other day), and is not potable. It's okay for bathing, washing dishes, etc. Since the water only runs part of the time, people fill cisterns when the water is running, and use the water from the cistern the rest of the time. You need to treat the water in the cistern with larvicide on a regular basis, so that it doesn't fill up with mosquito larvae.
Although bottled water is available, most people drink water from bags, which typically cost 5 cents each (or less, if you buy more than one at a time). It's much cheaper than bottled water because there is much less packaging.
This type of packaging is common in developing countries -- not just water, but all kinds of beverages are served in plastic bags -- but I've never seen it in the U.S.
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