Reporting on the dismal state of American education has been a constant stream for as long as I can recall – at least back to the 1970s, and probably before if I had been old enough to pay attention. And there are certainly issues with our educational system. But one aspect which I have heard since probably earlier than the 70s is the lack of good technical education – or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as it has been referred to more recently. In regards to the great deficiency of this education, I disagree.
While I am not an expert in this arena, I do have experience. I have a technical degree from Purdue University and also a Master’s degree in technical business from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. I have worked as an engineer and manager for both public and private, large and small corporations. I managed an engineering co-op program for a Fortune 500 company. I also am a small business owner, where I work with a huge variety of people from corporations and businesses in a wide range of industries and even academics. I have also spent time researching into the economics of education (see The Tragedy of Tuition Hyperinflation).
Technical education has been a subject I have spent time researching, experiencing, and thinking about a great deal; but, a recent article prompted me to extend my opinions by writing this article. The article, The American Crisis in Science and Engineering, in December 2018 opined that America has a crisis in science and engineering. Baloney! Within a specific context. But I will explain further, and in specific detail, exactly what I mean.
Does the United States need smart, well-trained, deep-thinking engineers and scientists? Absolutely, without question! But I will focus on the engineering side for most part since that is my background and experience. The gist of my disagreement with the above mentioned article, and general rhetoric I have heard for forty-plus years, is that it focused solely on research engineering, as if that is the only and most important engineering that exists. Research engineering is not only important, but critical to industry and business; and, of course, to the United States. However, it is by no means the most important nor impactful or leading level of engineering.
In my opinion, the problem is how our universities educate engineering students as if they will all become research engineers when in fact the vast majority of engineers will not, and will need to be equipped with skills and knowledge in other areas of engineering and business. To educate en masse engineering students in this manner is waste of education, money, and misdirects future engineers in their future knowledge requirements, among other issues it creates.
Anecdotal evidence was a conversation with my uncle. My uncle graduated from Purdue University in the early 1950s in Mechanical Engineering (ME) – and in only 3 years. I graduated from Purdue in the late 1980s with a Mechanical Engineering Technology (MET) degree from its School of Technology (Polytechnic School today). I started in the engineering school but realized, with the curriculum being so research orientated, it was not where my interest or future rested. But a number of years after I graduated, during a discussion with my uncle, he told me that his ME curriculum was actually nearly identical to the curriculum I had received in my MET program – much more practical and hands on education and training. He believed his degree had definitely served him well in his engineering and management career. Such is not the engineering programs of today.
Engineers have the technical ability to create wealth – new technology, products, and processes to build these new technologies and products (and also many services). But engineers must also have the abilities (skills and knowledge) to move these new items into deliverable, cost effective, and market quality items for other citizens to purchase and utilize. That is true wealth creation. And these skills are not embedded in the technical education that engineering curriculum imposes; particularly the research orientated curriculum of most engineering schools – my alma mater included.
Engineers of the past had the ability – skill and knowledge – to accomplish this transition. Here are some discussions explaining this history and practices – here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. In my Part 2 of this discussion I will address some of the statistics used in the crisis argument and how they do not meet historical or economic muster.