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The Talent Abyss: The Need for Radical Change in STEM Education

by | Apr 11, 2016 | Access to Talent

Massachusetts ranks dead last for the most difficulty in hiring technical talent because of the high demand for technical workers in the state, according to MATTERS, MHTC’s online tool to evaluate our competitiveness relative to other states.  But the problem is not only in the numbers, it’s also in the actual talent.  According to a recent Gallup poll, only 11 percent of business leaders say college graduates are well prepared to succeed in the workplace.  This country’s competitive edge has been slipping for a while by many measures and its prospects are dim if we don’t make radical changes to our educational system now.  There is significant focus on STEM in K-12, and rightfully so, but what you may not realize is the biggest chokehold in recruiting and developing technical talent occurs in the first two years of engineering college – the technical talent abyss.

As the president of Olin College of Engineering, a kind of privately funded national laboratory for engineering education, I know the numbers all too well and they haven’t budged for 20 years.  Less than 5 percent of this country’s current undergraduates complete engineering degrees.  Furthermore, 50 percent “opt” out of their engineering training in the first two years of college.  Equally troubling, less than 20 percent of engineering students are women and the percentage is even more dismal for underrepresented minorities.

I contend there are three concurrent problems in engineering education today.  We are: (1) we are not attracting the right people to the field; (2) not teaching the right content; and (3) not using the right learning techniques. David Goldberg, a leader in educational reform, refers to the engineering college experience as the “The Math and Science Death March.”

Not Attracting the Right People

There is now gender balance in medicine.  Why?  Because it’s very clear to young women entering medical school that their mathematical and scientific talents will accrue to the benefit of people.  Despite the impressive track record of engineering innovations in the 20th century, from air flight to the Internet, young people don’t understand the field’s benefits to society, according to surveys.  Given the global challenges ahead of us in this century, such as sustainability and cyber security, we need engineer innovators now more than ever.  The 21st Century “…is the most exciting time in human history to be engaged in the study and practice of science and engineering, ” said the late Chuck Vest, a former president of MIT who led the National Academy of Engineering.

Not teaching the right content

I love the insights from Kirsten Wolfe’s thesis on the careers of MIT engineering graduates – arguably some of the most talented engineers in the world.  These graduates reported that while they use a fraction of the technical skills they learned in college in the real world, they use professional skills much more frequently but for the most part didn’t learn them in college. These skills include ethical behavior and trustworthiness, a positive outlook and accepting responsibility, teamwork, effective communication and multidisciplinary thinking.

In our increasingly complex world where solutions involve human nature as much as technology, engineers are needed to provide comprehensive and complete situational diagnoses, involving interdisciplinary understanding of the root causes and the consequences of any new technology introduced into the world.  They require global systems planning and analysis, involving social, economic, political, and even religious factors to obtain desired changes in human behavior on both local and global scales.

To surmount these challenges, they have to function and lead multidisciplinary and diverse teams, be persuasive communicators and active listeners, and be resourceful and know how to acquire new knowledge.  Of course, learning the hard science of engineering will always be at its center, but we need to rebalance the educational experience to include these professional skills.

Not using the right learning techniques

Finally, as educators, many of us are still relying too heavily on antiquated methods of teaching that involve standing at a podium, lecturing to an audience who is expected to passively receive and memorize complex information (much of which is already available on the Internet) with no driving passion or purpose for using it.  I know, I’ve made this mistake myself as a professor. You will forget what you memorize but not what you understand.  In contrast to traditional engineering education, learning at Olin focuses on the discovery, rather than the transfer of knowledge.  Olin’s team-driven, project-based curriculum replicates the challenges students will face as engineers, and enables them to graduate with long resumes of actual engineering experience.  A pervasive emphasis on design thinking grounds students’ inventions in a deep understanding of the needs of people.  By experiencing the messiness and ambiguity of actual engineering problems, students are empowered to take charge of their learning and become engaged, confident problem solvers.

This approach has worked at Olin, we have a 95 percent graduation rate, gender balance and our graduates are highly sought after by employers, placed in the country’s top graduate programs and are going off to found start-ups at a high percentage.  We also collaborate with other universities, such as the engineering colleges at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and University of Texas at El-Paso, seeking to evolve their learning experiences so they are more like Olin’s.  In the past five years, more than 1,500 educators have come to learn more about Olin’s model.

What can tech leaders do to hasten change in academia?

We need to work together to better understand each other’s challenges and needs. This may mean more internships, or more co-ops such as the flagship program offered at Northeastern, formal mentoring programs, or initiatives such as SCOPE at Olin, where companies sponsor teams of seniors to work on their real-world problems.  Or, perhaps the recruitment of more corporate leaders into faculty positions where they can share the wealth of their experience and likewise the embedding of deeply thoughtful faculty in corporate positions to share their observations but also ground their teaching in reality.  A good example of this at Olin is found with one of our professors, Gill Pratt, who took an administrative leave to lead DARPA’s robotics program and is now heading up Toyota’s $50 million autonomous vehicle initiative.  While we may have lost him from the frontline of teaching, he’s already recruited several of our faculty as advisors and will likely look to hire several of our students. Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director of Education and Workforce Development, refers to this ecosystem as the “Educonomy.”

MHTC has been a facilitator for corporate-university discussions on an ongoing and structured basis for years, and members like, Al Bunshaft, CEO, DS Government Solutions, have been crusaders in forging promising relationship between academia and businesses.  This type of group and personal involvement from corporate leaders is essential to ensuring that education outcomes meet the needs of society.