I am listening to To the Point from Warren Olney. The discussion is on science, technology, engineering and math or STEM and why America is falling behind. I think the big issue is abstraction. We are suffering from a cult of knowledge. We talk about the knowledge economy. The knowledge economy may well be a STEM issue, but it is an abstraction. When I hear about the Grand Challenges for Engineering, I imagine the blah, blah, blah sound that must be hitting the ears of children as leaders string together laundry lists of the worlds science oriented ills.
I loved science as a child because we were in the space race. I could get plans (which I still have) from NASA for a Saturn V. Science and engineering was something I could touch. Our toys aren’t made to be touched anymore, not on the inside. Nobody builds their video game console or their computer. Most don’t put together bicycles or skateboards. I used Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Erector sets. I put together train sets and got shocked by by the improper use of 110 power. I pointed aerosol cans at Bunsen burners to see what the warnings were about. I engineered my childhood. Our children don’t have that anymore. We have taken that kind of exploration out of childhood. We simulate the experience, but we don’t provide any understanding of the principles behind the experience. We don’t make children build anything.
Obama was taken to task for telling the democratic base’s apathy was ‘inexcusable.’ Another abstraction. We are telling people what is important, not showing them.
The Grand Challenges for Engineering are intellectual abstractions of big problems. They aren’t practical ideas like put a man on the moon. That is what they wanted to be, but they were thought about too much. Rather than talk about making solar energy economical, it would have been better to say: Take Tucson off the grid by 2015. Make it a thing to do, not a purely intellectual pursuit. Don’t tell people the answer, have them solve a problem. Most of the Grand Challenges hint at answers, and many of the concepts overlap. None of them is direct.
If we want to get children involved in engineering and science, we shouldn’t tell them how important it is, we should help them discover how exciting it is. In the inner-city, sports is a way out. Examples exist in the real world. Sports captures the imagination because less than six-degrees separates those children from a star athlete. Science doesn’t have that edge, and just introducing an engineering during show-and-tell won’t do it.
We need to push microscopes and robots down to the kindergarten level. Let’s get kids hands on stuff. Work with Microsoft to create an XBOX 360 kit that kids can put together, perhaps even paint – maybe with a few parts missing that they have to buy, like the hard drive. Let them see the engineering, not just the marketing manifestation. Then maybe they will appreciate engineering again.
America has abstracted the world (Friedman and the World is Flat). America has abstracted politics and we have abstracted work. If we want people excited about competition, about doing things, about changing the world, we have to make it real again, and then perhaps people will care.