The dominant explanation for why students aren’t graduating with technical degrees is H-1B and outsourcing. It goes like this: Because American companies send technical jobs overseas, and because they hire foreign nationals under the H-1B visa program, (both supposedly at lower cost than hiring Americans), students regard technical careers (in electronics engineering, software development, information technology) as undesirable. They believe they won’t get healthy salaries or enjoy any reasonable job security. They may be right.
But I see another trend that’s far more disturbing than the behavior of companies and students. K-12 schools seem to be de-emphasizing the fundamentals of technology. They seem to be teaching kids how to be technology consumers rather than designers. A case in point is my local school district, which recently spent over $30M to build a state-of-the-art middle school. Every classroom is wired for sound, video, and computers. Every teacher has a laptop, and big LCD displays dot the facility. The auditorium is state-of-the-art; the soundboard alone blows away what you’d find in most commercial theaters. The school is equipped with a video production facility that kids use to produce what’s described as professional-quality videos. The computer lab lets kids use sound samples to produce their own music CD’s. It’s all really great.
The trouble is, no one is teaching the kids how all this technology works, and how they can build their own.
Oh, they teach the kids how to use the technology. But no one is teaching them how to program. Or how to design simple circuits. Perhaps the most revealing indicator that the school is teaching kids to be consumers, not builders, is the total lack of a Shop. You know what I mean — Industrial Arts. What was supposed to be the Shop was dumped in favor of a nice art room. Now, I love art, but I don’t see why two arts have to compete with one another and why we can’t have both when we spend $30M.
There’s a huge, fully-equipped Home Ec room — with washer/dryers and microwave and conventional ovens where kids learn “Life Skills.” But there is nowhere to learn how to hammer a nail, cut a piece of wood, build a project, or — more important — work up a plan. Where is the mechanical drawing class? In 7th grade I realized what math was for when I had to draw a wood project to scale and in perspective — and then build it.
We are teaching our kids how to use technology, but gone are the crystal radios, home-brew pc’s, electronics and wood projects, basic auto mechanics and other hands-on classes that teach how to design it, build it, fix it, make it work from scatch. Kids aren’t taught what an operating system is, how a band saw works, how to polish the burrs off a piece of metalwork, or how to envision and draw the details of something he or she would like to build. Where does a school instill an interest in building anything? Sorry for the dour cynicism, but the kids I know are on Amazon looking for the next gadget they can buy — because the last one stopped working, and they have no idea how to fix it. Kids who want to get their hands dirty have to sign up for extra-curricular programs, like Destination Imagination, and do it at home. (Thank heaven for moms who sponsor these creativity klatches.)
Electronic Engineering Times reports that the overall number of engineering degrees awarded is dwindling. Computer engineering degrees have dropped for three consecutive years. Master’s degrees are down from about 41,000 to 37,000. While Ph.D.’s in technology had a slight bump upwards, it is expected those, too, will drop, since the pipeline has fewer tech students in it today.
Johnny doesn’t work because Johnny isn’t developing an interest in designing or building technology — or wood projects, for that matter. Our school explains that our students are largely academic-track kids. They’re going to college, not to a vo-tech school, when they leave high school. Say what? Since when do academic kids not need to learn the fundamentals of how things work — and how to build their own stuff?
Johnny is learning to be the consummate consumer. If his iPod breaks, he’ll buy another. Someone will build it for him.