Sputnik moment my ass!

SputnikSome time ago when I was working in the government doing STEM education I went to a lot of events related to education policy.  At almost every one of these you would hear someone say that we need another Sputnik moment.  Even Obama would trot out this well worn line on occasion.

I always wonder what people want to say when they invoke a “Sputnik moment”?  Likely it is to invoke a realization we are behind, an event that awakens us from complacency and catalyzes our country to once again attempt great things.  The more I think about Sputnik moments, however, the less sense it makes when one is talking about education.  To my thinking Sputnik was a lot of things, but more than anything else it was about fear.  Educationally what exactly are we afraid of?

Are we afraid of someone overtaking us in education the way the Soviet Union overtook us in getting a satellite into orbit?  This leads to questions of what exactly “overtaking” might mean.  Is it scores on a test like PISA which are perennially dominated by Asian countries?  Is it in terms of inequalities in our education where we do rather poorly compared to countries like Finland (who has an education system built around equality because they are of a size, wealth, and population where this is possible)?

There are real differences between the moment Sputnik went into orbit and now.  In late 1957 the United States and our close allies had transitioned from WWII into the simmering proxy conflict with communism that was the cold war.  Nuclear annihilation was on everyone’s mind; the phone book I grew up with had instructions for surviving a nuclear blast inside the front cover as late as the 1970’s.  For many Sputnik represented these fears.

Comparing n sub-optimal education system to the gruesome horrors that Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the longer term health issues nuclear weapons testing created seems ludicrous since education poses no clear existential threat.  But maybe this is precisely the point; the reason why those who seek to change education talk of Sputnik moments is that they want to give the impression of a threat without ever defining exactly what that threat is.

Threats today–climate change, lack of upward mobility–are more like the bogeyman:  something one should be afraid but that is vague and mythical.  Wikipedia’s definition of bogeyman captures it perfectly:  “…a spirit parasite that feeds on the energy generated from people’s fears and worries day and night. This monster has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community…”  Somehow we all fear, or have been made to fear, that if we don’t educate our youth better something horrible will happen.  It is an open question whether this fear is baseless or legitimate. It is, however, a common ploy in politics to avoid complex and controversial issues by using suggestive, coded language such as drugs and crime to refer to race or highlighting small town American working values to frame fear of job loss to immigrants.

It is worth asking what exactly is the fear politicians and policy makers want to invoke by the words “Sputnik moment”?  The obvious answer is that of falling economically behind.  Fewer jobs, lower wages, less money to invest in infrastructure and health care.  This is likely a reasonable fear but it is worth asking if failings of the education system is a cause of the decade long decline of real wages, or simply a red herring.  Another fear may be xenophobia given that Asian countries dominate international measures of education.  Those of my generation may remember the economic fear generated by Japan in the 1980’s before their decades long recession.  Interestingly education isn’t about competition–that is neoliberal capitalism–it is about sharing.  Yet a third fear may result from the pace of technological advance.  How many Americans feel left behind by a technology that seems both relentless and unstoppable, and one that increasingly is used by…young people.  Everyone is afraid of teenagers and blaming societal problems on youth goes back to at least 600 BC.  If only we had some new form of education that could keep those young hellions in check!

Be wary of those who ask for a Sputnik moment, it is at best misleading and at worst disingenuous.  The challenges we face in society are complex but inextricably linked to education; the challenges of education are themselves linked to disparities in access, economic policy, and other societal issues.  There is not straight line path, every action circles back on itself.  It is also worth recognizing that Sputnik wasn’t a moment, but a slow dawning realization that showed policy makers and industry leaders that it was necessary to rethink organizations and systems if complex goals were to be achieved.  So when you hear “Sputnik moment” think of it not as a grand challenge, nor as a call to arms, or even as an overused historical reference.  Rather think of it as an admission by policy makers that they may be the biggest part of the problem; that not only don’t we know what to do, but we can’t even define the problem.


Note, I started this post several years ago while I was doing educational policy in Washington.  The message of that moment hasn’t changed much.  Today I am writing from Rome where I have been walking paths trod for over two millennia.  The eternal city makes one realize just how transitory the issues of the day are.  Education will never be “solved”, but it can adapt.  One hope it can adapt as fast as society changes.

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The Changing Face of Credentialing

In the years I stepped away from blogging about higher education to go work in the Federal government doing education policy then shift back into a department chair job that does policy at a very local level the sense of an approaching paradigm shift in higher education is getting more palpable.

There have been some recent articles looking at an area I am quite interested in, credentials.  The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a recent article that looked at how both universities and companies are moving into the educational boot camp space.  This followed a similar New York Times article that was published about a month earlier looking at Udacity’s new offerings in nano-courses.  Both these articles are interesting because they point to how credentials, the proof that you possess a set of knowledge and skills, are changing.  And just today Jeff Selingo in the Washington Post comments on how the name recognition of universities may decline in the future if effective competence measures are developed.

For years a university degree has been a valid and widely accepted proxy for a whole host of personal qualities that include at least somewhat of a broad education, the ability to self-manage one’s time, an ability to communicate, possessing a work ethic, and that the individual shares some set of cultural beliefs with other college graduates.  Employers and other were happy to accept degrees as proxies since it left a lot of hard work of identifying and training people to universities.   So what has changed so that alternative forms of credentials are suddenly in vogue?

One potential factor is that college degrees are becoming more specialized, in other words the different types of degrees colleges offer is rising.  As different types of organizations seek to distinguish themselves and gain the status of a profession, they establish new job titles, establish professional organizations that lobby state legislatures, and claim status through the need for a specialized degree.  This expansion into specialty degrees pushes the higher education system away from long held ideals of a liberal education.  Extrapolating the trend, however, requires some new form of credentialing since expanding degree programs conflicts with shrinking budgets.

Another factor that may contribute to the move toward new forms of credentialing is the increasing loud public dialog that frames universities as outdated and/or inefficient.  This is a really interesting topic that I’ll explore further in a future post.  For now though if one frames the value of a college education transactionally (i.e. exchange of tuition for a diploma or job qualification) or through a purely utilitarian lens, then a host of factors have conspired to make college seem like a worse investment than it once was.  If one adopts this belief system then clearly some other form of credential that is more focused, requires less time, or is more incremental seems like a desirable innovation.

Another possible reason for the interest in alternative credentials is how people perceive work is changing.  While clearly there are a lot of variations between companies in general organizational structures are flatter so that the expectations for a new employee may be higher or the resources for on-the-job training reduced.   Combine that with the soft job market since the 2008 recession and you get preferential hiring of those who have more focused credentials, which in turn could drive demand.

One might also hypothesize that an economy that has people in more transient employment and shifting between jobs more often might lead to increasing demand for “micro-credentials”.  This is not an unreasonable hypothesis, but data shows that, at least at the macro level, there is less job hopping by recent graduates than before the recession.

Overall I believe that new forms of credentials are more likely to be a boon for higher education than yet another death knell.  As is a theme throughout this blog institutions that are able to be agile in navigating how to uphold the value of traditional education while providing more flexible options will likely thrive.  Pining for the days of a single curriculum focused on the liberal arts for all graduates is wishful thinking.  However believing a cloud of micro-degrees confers the same education as a more traditional program so far has no evidence to support it either.

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"Science is Hard" and Occupy Wall Street

There was an article in the New York Times last week that was forwarded to me by several people.     The article’s title isWhy Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)”.  My first impression was “this is news?”.  My second thought was “I’ve seen this before” and finally remembered that this theme was in The Onion about nine years ago (link here).  

But sarcasm and parody aside, the article first made the point that science and engineering are hard and then went on to discuss the potential of more effective and engaging methods of teaching.  Why is this considered news when the point at first glance seems obvious.  But then I sat back and thought a little, and realized that the fact STEM education needs reform both is and isn’t news to most people.  And this contradiction or confusion is perfectly understandable if you consider not just what makes the news, but how the news is generated.

For years an underlying assumption of this country has been our technological, scientific, and moral superiority.  This assumption drives our foundational narratives, and contribute to our cultural identity.  In an era of where the corporate news media is required to turn out stories rapidly and continuously, it is my perception that the media increasingly bases stories on these foundational narratives.  Given the rapid news cycle, there is less time to reflect on and challenge these narratives and thus they are often reinforced among the great majority of the American populace that are not experts in a given discipline.  Since cultural narratives likely play a major role in identity, challenging these narratives opens one to disbelief and criticism, much of which can be irrational.

If one looks at the Times article there are two other related foundational narratives that crop up in the first two paragraphs:  that the US is falling behind other countries, and the “Sputnik Moment” story.  These narratives are, of course, related.

The “falling behind” narrative is used to underscore or highlight news and relate it to basic human fears.  The fear that the end is near, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the other, and the fear of death.  In this narrative there is an “other” out there that is gaining on us, and if it catches or surpasses us we can expect the future to be worse than the present.  All our hard work will have gone for naught.  In the last fifty years this “other” was first the USSR, then Japan, and now is China/India.

The “Sputnik Moment” is our story of how we overcome this threat.  A pivotal event somehow transforms the country.  A cadre of scientific heroes rise up from the mass of ordinary Americans and through their superior intellect transform society and save us from the “other”.

Both these foundational narratives are not new, and form the basis for human storytelling throughout much of history.  But the stereotypes and resultant actions triggered by these narratives can be dangerous if the narratives go unchallenged precisely because they are so deeply rooted in what it means to be human.  Two questions immediately come to mind.  First, is the “other” really a threat?  Second, are there really “heroes” among us that can rise up and save us?  The first question is one that is often asked; I don’t really have anything to add to this discussion.  The interesting and most important question, I feel, is the second one…

The importance of the question of whether we can have “heroes”, which I believe today are called “entrepreneurs” or “innovators”, struck me today when I was down at Occupy DC today with my son and saw this sign:

“I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that.  
Then I realized, I AM SOMEBODY”

The foundational narrative of a Sputnik moment is that critical events result in heroes rising up.  Such moments create heroes.  But we live in a society that suppresses Sputnik moments since they both threaten our narrative of superiority and result in changes to the status quo.  Engineering educators would love to see the engineer as hero again, but this will not happen.  If we wait for heroes we must wait a long time.  We live in an age of cooperative ventures, teams, large systems, and complex problems.  Sputnik created this age, and we must live with its consequences.  And as the protest sign above indicates, we must now all be heroes.

The foundational narrative of the scientist hero sparked the wide-spread belief that science (and by incorrect association engineering) is hard, the domain of a few “super-brains”.  Phrases like “It’s not rocket science” for what is perceived to be simple imply that rocket science is hard, it is not accessible to everyone.  How much damage has this narrative done to our country?

And perhaps this is the hidden message in the Times article.  Students seek to construct their own narratives where they are heroes or heroines.  As we seek to make engineering rigorous, we deconstruct their narratives; they can no longer maintain the myth we ourselves have created for them.  So they leave.  And the myth perpetuates… 

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Tolkienesque thoughts on the Internet

I have been reading a long, but quite interesting article by Jaron Lanier, who has been involved for years in the development of the internet, but whom I had never heard of previously.  While being critical of the internet,  the article is not a diatribe or “rant” but rather a well-reasoned article that sees the advantages and disadvantages of global networks in general.  In his article, “Local-Global Flip”, Lanier makes myriad points–peppered liberally with examples– two of which are, I believe, critical to understand the highly networked world we have found ourselves in after one short generation, as well as provide guideposts to the evolving world of engineering education.The first of these points is that those of us who use the internet are not consumers, rather we are the product.  This is particularly true if we take advantage of “free” software and services.  This is rather obvious; as Heinlein said so long ago (and it was old then) TANSTAAFL (“There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”).  It costs money, real money, to buy and maintain the servers and associated technology, and pay the smart people to develop all this cool stuff.  Google (and other internet companies) make money on this by collecting, analyzing, and selling information about you.  Since I am writing this blog on Blogspot, I too am participating in this model!

The second point Lanier makes is that there are unforeseen and unintended consequences to any technology we choose to adopt.  The term used in intelligence and policy circles for unforeseen consequences is “blowback“.  The theme of unforeseen consequences has long resonated with me personally; perhaps from reading Tolkien at a young age:

“Alas for Saruman!  It was his downfall as I now perceive.  Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves.”  (The Two Towers, ch. 11)

Engineers (and by association technologists) suffer from Saruman’s sin of hubris.  The hubris of the “network” is that none of us fully understand it, and few even understand it in enough detail to recreate it.  And that is just the technology, the social and economic consequences are even less known or perhaps even knowable.  As an example Cindy Atman’s (and colleagues’) work on what engineering students learn found that knowledge of the larger context surrounding the engineering students learn is nearly absent when they graduate.

These two points are related.  The consequences of the internet and the data-enabled networks engendered by it have, in Lanier’s opinion, impoverished the populations they were designed to serve.  We create knowledge and give it away for free in exchange for social recognition while those who control the network gain wealth and power.  Lanier sees this as the “local-global” flip; as networks get too global they create local conditions that undermine their own success.  Lanier points out that this flip is the likely, but not inevitable, consequence of creating large networks which simply arise from the fact that those that accumulate power have the failing of being human.

But enough summary, I can’t do this article justice in a blog post. What, you may ask, does this have to do with engineering education?  If Lanier’s conclusions are right it means we need to be very careful with new conceptions of universities that focus on putting more content on-line.  By making information widely available, we eventually undermine the role of faculty since we have always been knowledge workers.  The focus on research, on knowledge creation, does help define a valuable role for faculty, but does not address education.  It is too bad Lanier’s article doesn’t focus on his third way, the “middle path” between the extremes he defines of Marxism and “The Matrix” for we surely need to find better way forward.

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Putting our collective heads in the cloud

About a month ago I read an interesting opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled How to Save the Traditional University, From the Inside Out by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring.  Any article that threatens to save us from ourselves should be viewed with caution, or as Thoreau so wisely said:  “If I know for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life…for fear that I should get some of his good done to me…”  However some of the advice in this article seems quite apropos to the current climate in which universities find themselves.The article points out that universities still have a valuable role to play in society in conducting basic research, to “serve as conservators and promulgators of our cultural memories”, and to allow mentoring for the rising generation.  While I personally object to the term mentor, given that the actual role of Mentor was to put the brakes on Telemachus, all these are valuable roles that the university plays in society.  However they caution about many of the same issues I am so passionate about in this blog- the increasing social injustice that comes with the cost of higher education.  But beyond bitching about the problem, they have made some very reasonable suggestions to address it.

The most important, I believe defining, point of the article is that these issues have to be addressed inside the academy.  This is absolutely true!  The pressures on higher education are external, but these pressures are being felt across all aspects of society and, as the title of this blog alludes to, we are very short short of money so we must begin to think our way out of the mess we find ourselves in.  The article makes several reasonable suggestions that outline a path forwards:

  • Intelligently combine distance or asynchronous learning opportunities engendered by technology with face-to-face interaction and mentoring.
  • Focus on each institutions strengths and be willing to cut programs and classes that don’t contribute to that strength including low-enrollment graduate classes.
  • Focus on enabling students to graduate in four years.

Or as the article succinctly states the university needs to clearly identify “the students it serves, the subjects it offers, and the scholarship it performs.”

These are all great ideas, but I don’t think the authors go far enough.  It is not enough for a university to simply cut back to self-identified strengths.  It also needs to partner with other schools (that don’t have the luxury of multi-billion dollar endowments like Harvard) to offer a complete range of services.  Think of this if you will like a “cloud” model of higher education.  One of the images I present when I give talks is shown below:

Pretty much every faculty member in the audience gets this right away.  My next question to the audience is more subtle:  “What sat on the shelf next to every one of these computers?”.  I get a variety of answers, but a correct one  that makes my point is “a shelf full of floppy disks”.  The point is that in the dawn of the computer age, say fifteen years ago, you had to have a physical copy of every piece of software you wanted to run and every piece of data you wished to analyze.  Now of course much of this resides elsewhere, in “the cloud”.
This cloud model is a good one for universities, particularly given the current financial straits we will likely be in for a long time.  Does every university need every engineering department, what about a business school, or a registrar.  Consuming services to maintain a broad spectrum of educational opportunities makes a lot of economic sense, particularly given that this model would allow a university to market its strengths to others and both monetize its services and gain status.
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I owe, I owe, its off to work I go…Is College Worth It?

I saw a link to the College Loan Debt Clock which in turn led me to the New York Times article linked in this post’s title.  It seems that for the first time in (recent?) history in this country the total debt that individuals accumulate to go to college has exceeded credit card debt.  According to data from the Times article, credit card debt rose from $600 billion in 2000 and topped out at nearly $1 trillion about 2008 and has since fallen to just over $800 billion.  Student loan debt on the other hand was less than $200 billion in 2000, and has risen steadily to over $800 billion today, a jump of more than a factor of four in one decade.  To provide another perspective not the the Times article, the total US mortgage debt roughly doubled from $6.5 trillion to over $14 trillion over this time period.This trend is very clearly shown in the just released report from the Pew  Research Center “Is College Worth It?”.  This very informative report seeks to provide data on the costs of college from two polar perspectives- the American public and college presidents.  The report is a wealth of information on the actual costs of college and the public perception of same.

Interestingly the ratio between the earnings of young people with college educations and those without peaked in the early 1990’s and has stayed flat since the early 1990’s…

…while the inflation adjusted (to CPI) costs of college are climbing steadily.

It seems that this trend is not sustainable broadly although looking at this data on a very large national scale likely hides other trends for particular majors or employment categories.  It is not surprising given these trends that college debt is increasing.

The Pew report spends a good deal of time looking at the question of debt.  It is clear from data in the report that the costs of college track almost linearly with the total debt owed for college.  The New York Times article quotes several economists who classify both home mortgages and student loans as “good debt” and credit card debt as “bad debt” since both homes and a college education have long term value.  However as the two figures above seem to indicate, that while this is true now, if costs keep rising and the wage differential stays flat this will eventually be an historical assumption and not reflect reality.  In fact as the Pew report hints at, this is already the reality for large sections of our society that are traditionally under-served by higher education.  The three top reasons for not attending college are, at their root, all financial.

The Pew report also tracks a steady downward trend of the public’s belief that college is affordable or a good value for the money.  College presidents, on the other hand, tend to be more optimistic about college, but 57% say that most people can’t afford college.  A surprisingly large percentage of college presidents believe that the US higher education system is not the world’s best or heading in the right direction.  Interestingly the more selective the college, the more the belief that it is affordable and the US higher education system is the world’s best.  I guess, on reflection this isn’t so surprising since we all tend to see things from our local perspectives and why should presidents of elite colleges not be biased by the view from their offices?  Although the differences between selective and non-selective institutions are not huge, this is a worrisome data point since it is the more elite schools that tend to drive change in higher education.

The Pew report does break down earnings by degree using a “synthetic work -life earning estimate” by which they mean how much a degree holder earns if future wage trends mirror historical data.  The figure below shows lifetime earnings of bachelor (or higher) degree holders in millions of dollars.

Engineers do well, even compared to science and medicine.  The report splits engineering BS degree holder from MS degree holders and finds a lifetime earnings of $1.7M for the BS degree recipients and $2.1M for MS degree holders, showing the extra investment in an engineering master’s degree is well worthwhile, at least for the population at large.  To compare the low person on the totem pole, education, the lifetime earning differential between a high school diploma holder and a Bachelors in education is only $80,000!  Clearly major matters.

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More on popping bubbles

Two articles caught my attention in the last week.  One, published in the highly respected journal Nature is a criticism of the current system of education at the PhD level.  The second article is on the TechCrunch web site and looks at entrepreneur Peter Thiel who sees a rapidly inflating bubble in higher education.Both articles have at their core the worry that we all share about the economy and our childrens’ prospects of future prosperity.  Both articles also share the point of view that education in not a panacea for society’s woes, as is often assumed by policy makers.

The Nature opinion piece draws its conclusions from a study published in the same issue that looks at the prospects of PhD graduates in several countries around the world.  The basic conclusion of this study that there are wide variations in the prospects of PhD students depending on the economic growth of the country, but in most cases there are not and will not be enough academic jobs.  The author of opinion piece, Mark Taylor, paints the picture as more of a social justice issue with universities and faculty complicit in continuing a system of indentured servitude for doctoral students despite the slim prospects of getting a job.  This isn’t a new conclusion.  I got my own Ph.D. around the time of the big downturn in Ph.D. employment in the early 1990’s and the internal joke among Rice graduate students played off of the recruiting slogan of the Army at that time:  “It’s not just a job, it’s and indenture“.

Regardless of whether you agree with the opinions stated in Dr. Tayor’s article or not, it seems clear that the increased supply of doctoral degrees helped along by universities needing to grow programs, in combination with the decreased demand for PhD scientists and engineers mimics the conditions of an economic bubble.

The other article comments on activities of billionaire Peter Thiel who very much believes the entire higher education system is in the midst of a bubble similar to the internet bubble of ten years ago.  The article points out the current rethinking of the value–i.e. benefit to cost ratio–of higher education:  “…the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligensia.

One of the interesting points made by Mr. Thiel is given in this quote (emphasis mine):

If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?  It’s something about the scarcity and the status. In education your value depends on other people failing. Whenever Darwinism is invoked it’s usually a justification for doing something mean. It’s a way to ignore that people are falling through the cracks, because you pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine. Maybe that’s not true.

He hits the nail right on the head in my opinion with the comment on status.  Universities seek status the way moths seek candle flames and redneck junkies seek methamphetamine.  The massive recent investment in higher education is, in many ways, funding status increases for institutions.  There are definitely positive benefits from this investment, but in many cases the investments are only moderately successful because they are driven by the wrong reasons (institutional status).

Peter Thiel is seeking to attract twenty undergraduate students away from degree completion by offering them $100,000 over two years to leave school and start their own business.  Obviously this is a publicity ploy to demonstrate his point, but as the article points out, we aren’t really serious yet about education.  Perhaps some high profile attempts to poke holes in the myths and mystery surrounding academia will be healthy for the nation.

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A cool new tool, thanks to Google

I saw a link to a new tool Google published with very little fanfare a month ago.  This tool allows word counts of over 5.2 million books stretching back centuries.  The tool returns graphs of the fraction of how often in a given year the word that you search for is found in scanned Google books. Obviously the results returned are going to be dependent on the types of books Google scanned and how accurate the database is, but with millions of books scanned, one can assume it is a good sampling.  There is a more complete report of how the tool works in a very recent article in Science.  However without going into great depth there are several very interesting (and fun) questions that this tool can provide insight on quickly and easily.

For example we in engineering education are rightly focused on the importance of our discipline.  How does the rest of the English speaking, book publishing world perceive engineering in a historical context?  It is easy to search for the word “engineer” and compare our importance to several other professions.

Figure 1:  Relative frequency of selected professions for two centuries

Several interesting trends jump out from this data.  Engineer is in the literature database more than scientist, which is somewhat surprising given our perception of engineering as being less visible than science at the K-12 levels and in parents’ minds.  Also both “engineer” and “scientist” have declined recently compared to the two other professions of “doctor” and “lawyer”.  Note that the words “mathematician” and “technician” are barely on the map.  Is this decline an artifact of the dataset?  It is simple enough to run a search for very common words:

Figure 2: Relative frequency of very common words

While there have been slight declines in some words,they don’t correlate temporally well with the decline of “engineer” or “scientist”.

Going back to Figure 1, there are some interesting bumps in the frequency of the word “engineer” that don’t appear in scientist.  Historically these seem to correspond to major military conflicts (Civil War, WW I, WW II).  The figure below highlights this by comparing “engineer” to two other militaristic words:  “soldier” and “pilot”.  There is definitely a stronger spike for the more militaristic words, but clearly the data shows the relationship of engineers to military conflicts.

Figure 3:  Correlation of “engineer” with military conflicts

Interestingly enough in the recent “War on Terror” period post 2000, there has not been a connection with engineers, at least in the books scanned by Google.

Is the decline of the word engineer associated with all the most common disciplines of engineering, or just a few?  The figure below shows the results of a search for “_____ engineer” over the last century where the blank is the particular discipline shown.

Figure 4:  Frequency of five different disciplines of engineering

A search for “_____ engineering” turns up very similar results.  It is interesting that all branches of engineering show a decline, and all but industrial engineering peaked in the late 1980’s, about the time the number of engineering students in the US peaked according to NSF’s Science & Engineering Statistics data.  It is also interesting to note the correlation, or lack there-of, of different disciplines and military conflicts.

The last meaningful search I did in NGrams was for STEM education, in particular comparing “engineering education” with “science education” over the last century.  This is shown below.

Figure 5:  Comparison of two types of STEM education

To me it interesting to see the meteoric rise of “science education” about the time you would expect following the Second World War.  Perhaps the decline had to do with the political and social movements near the end of the Vietnam War?  Although interestingly enough while “science education” is written about much more, “engineering education” has been on a steady decline since about 1980, when “science education” started its largest period of growth.

Are these just numerical coincidences, does the set of books from which this data is drawn accurately reflect public interest, knowledge, or perception?  I neither have the scholarly background nor time time to delve into this issue in a truly scientific manner.  However I do believe that this data qualitatively reflects trends in public perception and attention.  If this is true, and that is a big “if”, then engineering seems to be on a long downward slide.  This data suggests the critical importance of explaining what we do, publicizing our impact, and attempting to become more visible.  The National Academy of Engineering’s Changing the Conversation initiative is a good first step.

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An Engineering Culture

There was an article in the New York Times recently that summarized the comments made by several industry leaders here in the US and in Great Britain recently about these countries turn away from manufacturing. An interesting piece in the Times’ article is the emphasis on an “engineering culture” and how this lack affects the economy and society.  James Dyson’s recent report to the British government, Ingenious Britain, highlights the need for government to sponsor and fund large engineering projects both to stimulate excitement in engineering and technology and create the jobs that turn interest into careers.  The Times’ article states:

For decades, France has nurtured big engineering endeavors, like nuclear power and high-speed trains. The graduates of France’s leading engineering schools are among the elite of French society.”

Other calls for more of an engineering culture have been put forward on this side of the Atlantic by Andy Grove of Intel (covered in a previous post) and Jeffery Immelt of GE who said candidly:

Many bought into the idea that America could go from a technology-based, export-oriented powerhouse to a services-led, consumption base economy – and somehow still expect to prosper. That idea was flat wrong. And what did we get in the bargain? We’ve seen a great vanishing of wealth. Our competitive edge has slipped away, and this has hit the middle class hard.” 

Unspoken in these reports is the criticism that the engineering profession–especially those that profess to be engineering educators–was somehow complicit in letting this happen.  I believe this to be true.  As long as we focus on content, as long as we discuss equations, principles, and concepts we are safe.  Safe from straying into the messy and subjective realms of economics and politics and religion.  Safe from those that profess belief that is not backed up by fact or reason.  This course of non-involvement is, in some ways, prudent.  The rise of demagoguery and concurrent demise of reasoned discourse is unsettling to many engineers.  The decision to stay well away from the polemics of politics is a safe course and for many faculty part of an unstated code of ethics.

But yet…  The engineering profession does have its own set of beliefs as the above public statements by engineering leaders indicates.  While these beliefs are by no means monolithic across the profession they do exist.  Outsiders may wonder about our unwillingness to stand up and fight for these beliefs, or to pass them on to our students.  These actions become understandable when one realizes that the engineering profession’s unwillingness to articulate, inculcate, and defend our beliefs are, in fact, part of the beliefs of our discipline. 

I don’t really understand the origins of this attitude, but it may arise from the simple fact that over time we become what we do.  Most engineers’ work is driven by data and numbers; we learn to dismiss statements not backed up by data.  We are reinforced in this behavior by the difficulty of what we do; embracing a data-driven life, like Thomas Merton’s asceticism, requires year of discipline to pay off.  But there are things in the world that cannot yet be quantified, and perhaps never can be.  Does our focus on data make us less able to accept, embrace, defend, or articulate such ephemeral things as values?  I am reminded of James Branch Cabell’s character Jurgen who upon seeing a vision of Helen of Troy understood that his life experiences had made him incapable of expressing passion:

“At the bottom of my heart, I no longer desire perfection.  For we who are taxpayers as well as immortal souls must live by politic evasions and formulae and catchwords that fret away our lives as moths waste a garment;  we fall insensibly to common-sense as to a drug; and it dulls and kills whatever in us is rebellious and fine and unreasonable; as so you will find no man of my years with whom living is not a mechanism which gnaws away time unprompted.  For within this hour I have become again a creature of use and wont; I am the lackey of prudence and half-measure; and I have put my dreams upon an allowance.

Engineers need to be careful not to let our values go unremarked or under-appreciated.  We need to more explicitly teach our beliefs and our way of looking at life.  If there was ever a time in history to stand up for faith in reason, for using data to make decisions, for balancing human need with the hard facts of the universe that time is now.

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Are they lazy or just bored?

Two academics associated with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, recently came out with a report that examined several data sets and found declines in study times over an approximately forty year span of time. The data, which seems to have undergone a rigorous analysis, indicates students are studying less now and devoting more time to leisure. The article and the write-up about it in many ways support the observations and beliefs of many faculty members who deal with students on a day-to-day basis.

The report’s power is magnified by the fact that it is well written, short enough to actually finish, and sprinkled with memorable quotes such as:

“A nonaggression pact exists between many faculty members and students: Because the former believe that they must spend most of their time doing research and the latter often prefer to pass their time having fun, a mutual nonaggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other.”

As such the report, as the authors subtly acknowledge, will join the growing body of literature that directly or indirectly excoriates higher education by presenting evidence of standards declines, over-catering to students, failures of self-regulation and accreditation, and the need to reform higher education along the lines of business ventures. In some ways both we faculty and the students deserve such criticism.

The comfort afforded from this report is the kind found when data backs up one’s personal beliefs or observations. Many faculty will see in the report a reflection of their own conviction that students don’t work as hard, that they are different and becoming harder to teach. And it is true that students have changed, but everything changes, and changes ceaselessly. What the report tries, but ultimately fails, to answer is why the significant reduction in number of hours studied is occurring.

The authors, who are economists, try some explanatory analysis which reflects their upbringing in the culture, beliefs, and assumptions of economics. A seeming assumption that is made is that students always act in their best economic interests.  A surprising statistic from the report is that study time makes a rather large difference in salary later in life:

“We find that postcollege wages are positively correlated with study time in college. The increase in wages associated with studying is small in the early postcollege years, but it grows over time, becoming large and statistically significant in the later years. By 2004, one standard deviation in hours studied in 1981 is associated with a wage gain of 8.8 percent.”

But what if students don’t act in their own (and society’s) best economic interest, what if instead they act in their best personal interests?

To try to understand this issue a little bit better, and delve into the issue of why economic and personal interests may not be the same, I took the authors up on their offer in the article to provide more data on request. For the most recent data the authors provided the moments of the distribution:

  • Mean:  19.75373
  • Std. Dev.:  14.5910
  • Skewness:  1.334962
  • Kurtosis:  5.697429

If I plug these into Matlab [using the pearsrnd command for the geeks out there] and make a histogram of a random distribution of 10,000 students with these numbers, this is what I get…

The red line is the average hours studied (19.75) while the green line is the hours a student is expected to study if they were taking 15 student credit hours (SCH) and worked 2-3 (average 2.5) hours outside of class for each hour spent in class.  Since I’m an engineer, the visual of the figure really brings home the fact that most students simply don’t study as much as we expect.  The question is, why?

There are some interesting quotes from the article [which I acknowledge are taken out of context] that may support the viewpoint that students are not motivated to study…

“By contrast, students in 2006 in the University of California system spent 11.4 hours per week playing on their computers “for fun”—a category of leisure that would not have existed in 1961.”

Or this…

“In the past, then, some students may have worked hard to signal they were high-ability types, relative to the other students in their college. But if students within a given college are now of similar ability, grades or rankings may now lack content as a signal.”

The latter quote comes from the authors’ putting forth an explanation which is based on students using grades to make themselves look good for employers.  Basically the argument goes that since there are fewer ability differences between students within the same college, students no longer need to distinguish themselves from peers by working hard to get good grades. 

All of these are possible explanations…  However, lets go back and look at the quote on wage gains v.s. study time.  The data says–assuming that the standard deviation of 14.6 hours per week is about the same in 1981–that if you study 14 hours more a week, you can expect to make 8.8% more later in life.  I think for many students studying twice as long for more salary 25 years later is not seen as a wise investment.  Perhaps students value personal time more than potential future wage gains?  Perhaps they are different than their parents in that they have less faith that working hard today for unquantifiable future gains is a wise investment of their time?  Perhaps they have lost faith that the economic system will treat them fairly, or perhaps there are simply too many interesting things to do now.

The fact students can create an identity they are valued for by doing activities besides working hard in school (James Gee has documented that playing video games is such an activity) is likely the biggest factor.  Economic arguments are valuable, but don’t seem to capture the breadth of human behavior and motivation.  If the structure of universities doesn’t change to acknowledge the need to build identity, then expect this worrisome trend to continue…

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