More engineers, is that what the country needs?

It’s generally felt, often articulated by both business leaders and politicians, that our public school system is not graduating enough STEM college majors, and that of all those who do go on to college intending to major in math and the sciences, too many of them are now switching majors along the way.

According to Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs, while talking to President Obama, told the president that Apple employed 700,000 factory workers in China because it couldn’t find the 30,000 engineers in the U.S. that it needed on site at its plants. “If you could educate enough engineers,” he said at the dinner, “we could move more manufacturing jobs home.”

Fareed Zakaria in an article in the current Time Magazine points out that while other countries have focused on math and science, in America college degrees have proliferated in “fields” like sports exercise and leisure studies, [implying not in STEM fields].”

President Obama himself, while speaking with industry leaders, perhaps remembering Jobs’ words to him, called on colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM, that is science, technology, engineering, and math.

In other words it seems a general perception that our public schools are not now satisfying the needs of this country for engineers. For we need engineers, and if we don’t produce them ourselves we will have to go elsewhere to find them. And still more foreign students no less than foreign oil is what we don’t want propelling our economy forward.

Now at this moment the assumption is still that we can produce the engineers that we need ourselves. And that in order to do that we need only to encourage more young people to become STEM majors in college, and then do whatever it takes to insure that they do not switch majors along the way. For at the present time “roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects, or fail to obtain any college degree.”

It’s true that by making STEM studies, —the lectures, classes, laboratories, the whole nine yards, more attractive to the takers we can probably increase the number of STEM majors, while at the same time decreasing the numbers of those who switch majors. But is that what we want?

For example analogously we know that we can increase the numbers of our high school graduates who go on to college by making the college path less daunting, more attractive. But also is that what we want? For it’s probably true that getting more kids into college has also grown significantly the numbers of kids who fail to graduate from college.

Rather than pushing kids into situations, STEM or college, where they shouldn’t be, shouldn’t we be paying much more attention to the kids themselves, in particular whether a four-year liberal arts college, let alone a STEM major, corresponds best to their own needs and special talents, their interests and abilities.

The conclusion to Christopher Drew’s article, Why Science [STEM] majors change their mind is that “the work is just too hard.” Doesn’t that mean that they’re in over their heads, probably been pushed there for the reasons given. That they’re trying to do things for which they’re not well prepared, let alone interested?

We Americans have perhaps reached a kind of natural barrier to increasing the numbers of math and science majors that our economy needs. It may very well be that the schools are already doing all they can in that respect?

President Obama may be pursuing just another pipe dream when he calls on our colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. The potential for our doing so may not be there.

Whether it is or is not is not easy to say. And then in regard to education we tend to disregard natural barriers, always saying that there are no limitations on what young people can do if they want to badly enough. This may be true, but probably not within the time frame of the school years. Twelve years of school or study will not make everyone fluent in chess, the calculus, or Chinese, or any number of other disciplines, all of which demand from most of us much more time than that, for some of us perhaps a entire lifetime.

We may or may not be now doing all we can in respect to the numbers of STEM majors we are graduating from our colleges. But the fact that we’re graduating from our own schools twice as many science PhD.s from the foreign student population than from our own suggests that we are, that is doing all we can with our own.

So rather than continuing to try to fill up the ranks of STEM college majors with those who in respect to their math and science abilities do not measure up, and will not in any case probably end up among the engineers that Steve Jobs and others are looking for, perhaps there is something else we might do, another direction in which we might go.

But first a little background to the discussion. Our society, and to a greater extent our schools, now stress the overriding importance of an education in math and science, and our educational establishment as well as our politicians and corporate CEOs are always telling us that these are the areas where the good paying jobs are to be found.

But those of you, most of you, with or without children of your own, know that math and science activities will reflect only a part of what children are, correspond to only a few or just some of their interests and talents. If the interest, the ability was not clearly there you wouldn’t try to make them engineers.

According to Howard Gardner children possess seven, perhaps more, perhaps as many as nine fundamental “intelligences.” As things are at present only two of these are stressed in our schools, only two of them hold out the promise to our students of acceptance at a four year college, and following college either a good job or additional years at a university.

The two favored “intelligences” are the Linguistic — meaning reading, writing, and story telling skills, and the Logical-Mathematical — meaning being skillful with numbers, patterns, relationships, categories, the solutions to math problems, playing strategy games, doing experiments, all that sort of thing.

Now those, probably most of our public figures, who would increase the numbers of STEM majors, and the numbers of engineers graduating from our schools and universities, are assuming that these two intelligences, and most especially the logical-mathematical one, can be made to grow and prosper within most if not all of our children.

But isn’t it obvious that this is not the case? Logical-mathematical intelligence, the genetic portion of it anyway, that which comes with one’s birth, is not equally distributed among us.

If you’re not convinced of this attend for a year or more (much less time would probably be enough) an untracked class in mathematics in any of our public schools and note the differences among the students in respect to their understanding of the course materials.

And while you do this you might even ask yourself how many of the students you’re observing in the classroom might be legitimate candidates for STEM majors in college.

How many is it now? That is, how many of our high school graduates do go on to college and major in STEM subjects? I have no idea, but probably the number is less than half, maybe only a quarter or less than that. In the classroom you’re observing it may be even fewer.

In any case we’re not going to, by our efforts, by anything we might do, create a strong logical-mathematical intelligence when the potential for such is simply not there.

Now math in relation to the STEM subjects occupies a special place. In addition to being a discipline in itself, like science, technology and engineering, math is often the language of the other three.

As a result STEM majors are often going to sink or swim in regard to their ability in math. When the work is just too hard, it’s usually, as Christopher Drew makes clear, because of the math.

The sorts of things that teachers might do in elementary, middle, and high schools to make math and science more attractive to their students, such as building robots and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion, all that sort of hands-on stuff is not going to determine or guarantee math and science futures.

Math ability, talent, or gift, whatever you may choose to call it, is probably more like musical ability, athletic ability, artistic ability, and other such.

And we would never propose “growing” an additional 100,000 musicians, athletes, or artists. We know that we don’t have that power. We know that in regard to most career choices we have to listen first to the child. Why don’t we do this also in regard to math and science?

There are things we can do. We need to make opportunities for learning, for learning all sorts of things, available in school, because for so many children the opportunities are just not there outside of school.

But we should not be using persuasion to lead kids to where we want them to go. We shouldn’t want them to go anywhere of our choosing. In any case uncovering mathematical ability is not a question of persuasion, persuading young people with the offer of a good job if they work hard in their math class for example.

You don’t persuade kids to have artistic, musical, athletic or any other ability. Appreciation, perhaps, but appreciation was not what was on the President’s mind when he talked of graduating an additional 10,000 engineers.

In particular about math, since math is the language of all the sciences (some of course more than others), while it is often for the few the wings enabling them to fly ahead in their chosen STEM field, for many others, probably the majority, mathematics acts like a break, forcing them to come to a stop and change majors.

In fact math may be the single most important reason that kids drop out of high school. For nearly all children, certainly all children who graduate from high school, take math every year of twelve years in school. If they are not well endowed with the Logical-Mathematical intelligence, what are they doing during all that time spent in all those classes?

Probably all sorts of things other than demonstrating their ability in math. They may even be getting good grades. While perhaps struggling with this or that particular concept, such as the addition of fractions in fifth grade, or in high school with partial fraction decomposition, the student may show the teacher that she is obedient, is listening and responsive, has whatever she needs with her in the classroom, now perhaps an  iPad and calculator as well as paper and pencil.

In these classes when the students are judged much more in respect to their having good study and work habits than in respect to their particular mathematical ability, that ability, whether or not it’s there, may remain hidden, its presence or absence unknown to both teacher and student.

It’s probably no different in areas, such as music and art where the classes also may not uncover whatever special musical and artistic talents the students may or may not have.

It probably is different in athletics, when just demonstrating good and responsible behavior on the court or field will not be enough, not mean much, whereas how fast you can run and how high you can jump will be most important, and evident to students and coaches early on, thereby influencing decisively your future career choices.

So if it is possible to grow our STEM graduates, and see more of them continuing with STEM subjects in college all the way to college graduation we would have to provide all along the way greater opportunities for those with the requisite talents to uncover these talents, to discover this about themselves, and to learn that this was an integral part of what they were and not something they should neglect while young and growing in possession of skills for life.

But again by how much we can grow that number we don’t yet know.  For it’s not clear that we’re not now uncovering all the Logical-Mathematical talent that’s out there (although I don’t think we are.)

Meanwhile we might do well to grow our STEM graduates from our immigrant student population (after all, we are a land of immigrants), grant more H-1B visas as well as green cards to the foreign students here in our schools who have shown natural ability in these areas. For we may have no more of our own.

In our favor, helping us to do the right thing, even though it may seem cruel and harsh to stress while in school the child’s natural talents and abilities, is the fact that all kids are talented, all kids have abilities, and our job is to help them to find them for themselves, not to impose our needs upon them from the outside.

Our job is to help them discover their own potential early enough in their lives when it can be developed and become a source of life long satisfaction.

How many kids ever discover their own and unique abilities in our present educational system? Well, OK, we probably don’t know the answer to that one. But in my own case I know I didn’t. School never taught me much about myself. I did what I was told.

It’s a great irony that I have since discovered that what I love most, languages and mathematics, representing the first two intelligences of Howard Gardner, correspond to where my own natural abilities are weakest of all. What we love most may not at all be what we most are.

This another reason for having students experience while in school the full gamut of opportunities. And probably even this won’t be enough. Most kids, like myself, will need more time than the time in school to find out about themselves, about who they are.

In any case it doesn’t seem fitting for the schools to be primarily taken up by our supposed need for more engineers.

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