July 21, 2010

Stanford’s top engineer: Our K-12 problem is serious

Filed under: Stuff I worry about

Over a year ago, I discussed the abject failure of American K-12 schools to teach kids how to be technology creators rather than just consumers. My plea to schools: Gimme a break! Stop giving students iPods and just teaching them how to use computers — when we should be teaching them how to program, design circuits and understand what’s inside those cool tech products in their pockets and on their desks.

Consider the various disciplines taught in K-12: math, foreign language, science… Kids are taught how math works, how the grammar of a language works, how the laws of physics operate.

But then we come to courses with titles like Computer Literacy and Media Technology. Kids aren’t taught how software programs work or how bits move around. They aren’t taught how information is stored or sent to a color printer. Instead, they’re simply taught how to use the cool products in which software and chips are hidden. Those “technology” courses are about how to make videos and cool PowerPoint presentations. Very cool. Very dumb.

(Sometimes it’s very clear to me that technology vendors like Apple offer special discounts to schools for no other reason than to market their products to budding consumers. There is no pretense of teaching technology.)

James Plummer, the Dean of Stanford University’s Engineering School, says it bluntly in an interview in Electronic Engineering Times:

“We have K-12 education that is not world class and certainly does not do a good enough job of helping young people understand what science and engineering are about.”

That’s an indictment of America schools that’s become the refrain sung by leaders of business and industry for several years. Our public schools generally suck at teaching technology. Meanwhile, elected boards of education are bamboozled by consumer technology vendors who wine and dine “Technology Curriculum Directors” who wouldn’t know BASIC code from a Java script.

The rejoinder from “education experts” is that not all kids are going to become engineers or programmers — so why teach technology at that level?

Well, it’s simple: Kids aren’t going to become accountants or chemists or interpreters at the U.N., either — but we teach them math, science and languages at a pretty early age because those subjects serve as a foundation of higher learning. Textbook publishers issue new editions of their math, science and language books every few years — even though nothing has really changed in the subject matter. (Uh, well, the method of teaching those subjects changes every few years… Gimme a break… all they’re doing is selling new books.)

Meanwhile, what’s really changing almost daily is technology — and I don’t mean just the cool products that are available, but the underlying technology that makes them possible. And where these rapid advances in technology are making the biggest difference is is overseas, in countries that are rapidly catching up with American ingenuity, outstripping our ability to create, produce and sell technical marvels to our under-educated kids (and their schools). Those countries are cranking out new generations of technically-savy graduates who will soon dominate the world economy.

But Dean Plummer isn’t one of those techies who’s just a technology booster. He gets it — he gets how a thorough education is key to success:

“We’ve got to give sudents a skill set to prepare for a multicompany career. A lot of what we are doing now is creating T-shaped people. The vertical part is deep technical education, and the horizontal part is a set of ‘softer’ skills: creativity, innovation, the entrepreneurial way to look at work.”

He talks about where the technology students at top schools like Berkeley and Stanford are coming from:

“Today the biggest sources are China and India. Historically it was Japan and Taiwan. These foreign students make up more than half our grads and in some schools as much as 75 percent. The quality of undergrads in these counties in Asia is superb.”

Plummer admits that colleges and universities are as much to blame as lower-level schools for America’s failure to develop science and engineering as attractive careers.

The problem now is that this failure has become a cliche. We talk about it, but we excuse it. Why? Because we look around and it seems “there are no jobs” in engineering and science. So why should we encourage kids to get into technology for a living? But that’s our fault, too, because we tell our kids that our nation is now a “service economy” and that “knowledge jobs” are the future.

In my next post, I’ll talk about why this is a dangerous fallacy that’s killing jobs and careers in the United States.

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5 Comments on “Stanford’s top engineer: Our K-12 problem is serious”
By Greg
July 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm

A couple weeks ago I attended a luncheon; the speaker was Dr. Steven Halim (National University of Singapore), winner of a number of international programming competitions.

One point he made, that sums up the American mindset is the amount of time teams in other countries (Russia, China, et. al.). Teams from other countries practice daily for months (9+) for upcoming competitions. American teams do not. One Clemson professor said if he could get his team to meet half a dozen times before a competition, he was doing great.

By Lucille
July 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

I have a fifth grader. I’d like the children to have science lab where they actually grow something or blow something up or use the bunsen burner.

They have a computer curriculum that teaches them how to use word and search google. But I’d like them to learn a progamming language (any one, I don’t care – and I’m a programmer).

Next year they are starting a robotics lab. I haven’t seen the curriculum but hopefully it won’t be put together some prefab lego shapes around an already built motor.

And I think these fifth graders are old enough to learn this stuff and have reach enough maturity to do it relatively safely.

The children do get advanced math and reading. They are up to greater than sixth grade math already.

By Alan
July 23, 2010 at 8:37 am

My son is interning in silicon valley as a software engineer.. Just got his offer letter… 110 k to start and Masters at Stanford will be paid for… We didnt wait for our K-12 school to get better ,. We enrolled him in a community college in 7th grade to supplement his education.. Honors and advanced placement courses are being destroyed becuase of budget cuts , yet the footabll teams have all the funding they need… Priorities all screwed up…. By the way, In the dept he interned in, he was the only American. His boss was Jordanian, he sat next to a few egyptians and the rest were Asians, Indians and I would assume quite a few people with H1_B visas…. His main project was work for the Bank of China… Sorry folks, the boat has left and it aint coming back.

By Nick Corcodilos
July 23, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Don’t miss Dave Opton’s take on this topic: http://execunet.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-we-dont-learn-in-kindergarten.html

By Stanford Engineer Talks K-12 | MN Learning
July 27, 2010 at 12:10 pm

[...] to share what are some of the issues being talked about outside of are normal area of discussion. Linked is an article and discussion that we found interesting on K-12 education and [...]

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