Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ever-younger engineers

Today's WSJ had an interesting article (free today!) about engineering in the elementary school classroom. When I read the description, it seemed extremely close to glorified tinkering (which, after all, is the basis of science, is it not?). Key points and excerpts:

  • Here's an example of such "engineering": "As part of a unit on solids and liquids, the [fourth-grade] students are asked to gradually mix combinations of flour, water and salt -- marking down what happens as they go along -- to come up with an optimal play-dough consistency."
  • Why this focus? Apparently, the reason involves "concerns that in math and science, American students are falling behind other countries -- particularly such industrial competitors as Japan and South Korea." My take on that: Even though I'd love for my country to be the best in everything all the time, that's not possible. This is a sinful world we live in; utopia of any sort, at least here, is out of the question.
  • The statistics: "In the U.S., 62% of doctoral degrees in engineering went to foreign nationals in 2006, compared with 50% in 2000, according to a recent report from the American Society for Engineering Education."
  • The ticklish controversy: "The push for more hands-on technical training comes at a time when other education policy makers are calling for a return to basics, particularly when it comes to teaching math."
  • More stats: "A 2005 survey of more than 100 high-school seniors who took the course indicated that 52% intended to major in engineering, according to Tammy Richards, executive director of the project. It is unknown how many of the students followed through on their major." Side note: That's a pretty small sample size, but it's still good news.
  • Cute: "Fourth-grader [L. B.] just finished a unit on chemical engineering at Odyssey Elementary and says he looks forward to lessons on engineering. "I like the problem solving, like when we had geotechnical engineering," says the 10-year-old. He says he wants to be an engineer when he grows up -- if his initial goal of becoming a firefighter doesn't work out." Big words, big dreams, small kid.

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