A child goes to the orchestra for the first time and is awed by the xylophone player. When she goes home, she says to her parents, "I want to play that."
So what do they do? Do they buy her a full-sized multi-octave xylophone? No. Why would they give her expert equipment before giving her a stepping stone instrument to learn on? Instead, they buy a xylophone that's made for her. It's brightly colored, fits her size, can withstand her dropping it, playing on it, chewing on it -- whatever she wants to do with it, her xylophone can handle it. It looks radically different from the orchestra player's xylophone, but it's still a xylophone and the fundamental concepts and skills she learns on it apply as she graduates to bigger and more complex instruments.
Over time, she graduates to a more advanced instrument and learns even more complex skills, like playing with two mallets at once, and by the time she enters college, she has graduated to a full-size xylophone and pursues a music major. When she auditions for the New York Philharmonic orchestra, she knows and has practiced all the skills necessary to perform and has the experience to earn the role.
The same is true for riding a bike -- you don't get to the Olympics without starting on a tricycle, riding a bicycle with training wheels, and graduating to a road bike.
For science and engineering, the inspiration is there -- SpaceX is launching rockets to space, CERN is creating the world's largest particle accelerator, and projects such as North American Eagle are working to break the world land speed record.
But while students can see these engineering marvels, most never get exposed to how they work or have the opportunity to build one of their own. In fact, students rarely get to participate in activities where they actually do engineering.
Unfortunately, our society and education system bombards our students with lectures, rote memorization, theory, and math throughout their education. Even in college, most only get exposed to computer simulations and programming in Java or mathematics algorithms. This lack of hands-on experience for students is driving our future innovators away in droves. And for those who stay, they graduate with no real-world experience.
Employers expect the students of today to be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow -- even the ones that don't exist today. Is that a fair expectation if we've never given our students a chance to do engineering?
I believe to answer industry demands for job-ready graduates, we must create an educational continuum that parallels the progression of learning to play an instrument or riding a bike and create products that grow with students from kindergarten to rocket science.
In our society, failure is considered a bad thing. But we must remember that failure is essential to innovation and that success is more than getting a good grade on a test. We must teach problem-solving skills and critical thinking through hands-on, project-based learning.