Recently I had the pleasure of being a judge at the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition in Atlanta. It casts the science of robotics into a team sport and encourages high schoolers to practice and learn about real science and engineering. Some 350 schools from around the world converged to pit their home-built robots against each other in a Jetson-esque basketball game. There I was in the mighty Georgia Dome surrounded by thousands of our brightest kids scrambling to reprogram a control algorithm or calibrate one thing or another.
Later, we heard U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Google founder Sergey Brin preaching on science and math education. I'm sure what they had to say was important, but they were drowned out by the kids. Not in an explicit way, but through the kids' actions that spoke in deafening volumes as opposed to mere words from famous mouths. All I could think was, "These kids got it right."
Many of them had no special exposure to science or engineering prior to the competition. But they managed to grasp the essential and finer points of competing-not just the technology but the organizational and financial issues and even marketing concerns. The creativity, energy, and professionalism shown will serve them well. Spreading that kind of success throughout the educational system is the key to maintaining the nation's competitive edge.
The kids got it right, but will we?
Today our governments and educational institutions have begun the tough journey of revitalizing math and science education.
Much of it is numbers driven. Simple calculations show an alarming deficit of scientists and engineers in the West relative to China and India. Already, major investments are earmarked to attract more high schoolers into technical programs. A combination of fear, marketing, and available jobs may be enough to drive up enrollment numbers and narrow the deficit, but what happens when the students get to college?
Sadly, the curriculum and pedagogies of technical education are still painfully slow in changing. Most colleges still compartmentalize the academic experience into tidy knowledge chunks. Swallow enough bite-sized chunks and you get your diploma and your job. That's what I did in 1982 and what engineering students do today. But if you have a numbers game where theoretically we can never compete in volume, we must give our students more than basic chunks of knowledge. They need integrative, creative engineering skills. Done right, the teaching of such skills also makes the program more vibrant and motivational.
Today's schools can draw from an unprecedented range of tools and resources: new software technologies that streamline knowledge delivery and remove archaic techniques from the curriculum; direct collaboration with working scientists and engineers; competitions such as FIRST, American Solar Challenge, and the Putnam Mathematical Competition; and many other known techniques that establish real context and relevance to engineering.
When other teams have 10 times your population, you have no choice but to focus on the quality of your people in addition to the quantity. Simply getting the kids to the engineering lecture hall is not enough.
Four hundred years ago, Gauss taught calculus and differential equations at the University of Gottingen in Germany. Today Professor Smith teaches calculus and differential equations in the same way at the school down the street. If we don't have the wisdom to see all dimensions of the emerging crisis and leverage our powerful tools and resources, this painful discussion will continue to remain painful and it will linger, until everyone realizes it's too late.
I'm sure the youngsters describing their control algorithms to me in Atlanta had no clue how to solve an integral using a trig substitution. However, if I had a company that needed to build a faster, cleaner, more robust car to compete, I'm pretty certain about whom I'd recruit.
Tom Lee is vice president of Market Development and executive product director at Maplesoft, a developer of advanced mathematical and analytical software.