John Hunter
Photo of John Hunter at Arches National Park

Sigh, yet again a website broke the link (when will websites finally be managed with an understanding of the importance of web usability and keeping urls alive?).  So I have posted the interview on my site:

On Encouraging Kids to Pursue Engineering

November 17, 2011

I've discussed in previous posts [another broken link on there site - removed link], many science-minded students end up choosing non-STEM related careers.  Policy-makers are desperately trying to reverse this trend, but can you, as an individual  (and engineer) do anything to help?

To further explore the question, I recently sat down with John Hunter, a fellow engineering blogger and science lover. What are the primary the issues holding students back in the classroom? And can you, as parent (or any kind of mentor), foster kids’ interest in science, despite institutional barriers?

John offers some fantastic insight, so dive in and feel free to offer your own advice!

 

K-Exchange: What can parents do to cultivate an interest in science in their kids early on?

John Hunter: Ask questions.  Answer questions.  Explain how things work.  Explain why things are done the way they are.  Kids want the attention of their parents, and when they are younger they are constantly trying to get it (dad look, mom look, watch me!).  They have similar feelings when they are older, but are not as forthright about saying what they want.  If you take a sincere interest in their questions, you’ll motivate them to continue pondering how the world works.  Make it fun to learn.  Kids have an intrinsic motivation to learn.  Keeping their curiosity alive is the first step.

K-X: Did your parents encourage your interest in science & engineering as a child? Tell us about what inspired you to pursue science and engineering.

JH: My parents always encouraged me to learn, though they never pushed me into any field in particular.  In my family we were given the  freedom to explore what interested us and were encouraged to ask questions and explore our interests.  For young children, I think more than encouraging science and engineering is encouraging an interest in learning.

As I child, I became interested in science because I wanted to know how things worked and why things were done the way they were.  In school, I found myself bored with memorizing what seemed like useless facts, taught in a way that seemed more about memorization than learning.  So I explored science on my own. I read books and listened to experts, which was much more interesting than the classes in school.

K-X: Many STEM college students complain that their high school education did not adequately prepare them for college STEM courses.[antoher broken link removed] Can you recommend any science-related mentoring programs for younger students?  (Or any kind of constructive outlet )

JH: I think it depends on the student and their particular interests, but I have a few starting points.

Good books are wonderful.  As a kid, I learned a great deal from just reading what I found interesting (I think more than I did in school).  I have a page on my blog for some books I think are good resources.

There are great lectures and TV shows online now (TED, PBS, BBC and many university lectures).    You can also take a more hands-on role with mentoring opportunities, like FIRST robotics, science fairs, Project Lead the Way.

K-X:  What do you think is the biggest factor behind young students’ sinking interest in engineering?

JH: It is always hard to narrow it down to one factor, but I would say that the biggest reason we don’t have more students graduating from college with STEM degrees is the way we are teaching.  We need to make learning fun.  Science and engineering requires more work than most other degrees.  That’s the truth. It won’t change and it shouldn’t change, or else an engineering degree would lose it’s value.

But we can improve our teaching methods dramatically. Growing up, Dr. George Box, a mentor of mine, mentioned that the problem with math and statistics education is that the few people on the doctorate level think of math in a way that is very different than most people (including the majority of undergrads interested in majoring in those fields).  Unfortunately, the way they teach turns off most students and that realization stuck with me over the years.  I think we do the same thing in science, especially at the undergraduate level.

Teaching science and engineering in new ways is hard.  Professors have to break away from the framework of how they learned and instead focus on effective ways to reach more students.  We have to develop new ways of teaching.  I favor project- based learning, where students have problems they are trying to solve as a means to accomplish a goal.

K-X: So, on the university level, professors generally aren’t student-centric enough. What other factors are discouraging students in the classroom?

JH: I have one belief that is close to heresy.  I don’t see why publication has to be so important for professors (if what we are after is good teachers, not authors).  Yes, the absolute best professors will create ground-breaking research, engage students with dynamic and charismatic lectures and mentor students to move through their studies.  But, realistically, a very small number of professors will be everything you want.  I think you can have many phenomenal professors that don’t focus much on publication at all.

If I was picking a staff of professors for a department, I would want some pursuing important research, but I would need many other valuable traits.  Let’s let teachers focus on being great in the classroom.  Let them focus on how to make our students’ learning process as effective as it can be instead of writing some perfectly decent but truly not-that-important paper for their field,  just so we feel our faculty are “world class.”

Changing the entrenched structure isn’t easy, but I think we should focus on project-based learning: in college, high school and grade school.  For grade school and high school, the focus should be on extra-curricular activities, like science projects and robotics teams.  I would be thrilled to see more project-based learning in the classroom at those levels.  Extra-curricular activities actively engage students and make science FUN again! It’s a very effective way to teach kids on the grade school level, so encourage kids to pursue these opportunities whenever you can!

K-X: Do you think the problem of declining interest in STEM careers will improve in the coming years?

JH: I think it will globally.  Whether the USA gets left behind, or not, is a more difficult question to answer.  As a society, we have given hollow rhetoric equal footing with scientific rigor. We are still the leading center of science and engineering excellence, but that lead is dwindling rapidly. We’re a far cry from the USA of the 1960s, when science and engineering was given top billing.

It seems to me we now have a subset of people that value science, a subset that fight against science and a large subset that are largely agnostic.  It’s a serious problem when even incredibly basic facets of science are discounted by more than the fringe of society. The result is, we’re having to argue about things that should be obvious and therefore don’t get to focus on the matters that could help us push forward our scientific thinking and application.  This harms our ability to build interest in STEM fields.

What matters most is that science and engineering is valued somewhere, even if it’s not the US.  We’ve for granted the economic gains as a result of our past innovation and will be sorry to eventually cede these benefits to others.

Thankfully many countries (especially in Asia) have understood the great benefits of investing in science and engineering (the example provided by the USA from 1950 – 2000 made it pretty obvious for anyone paying attention how wise this is economically).  I think we will see growing global interest in STEM fields, for which I think we should all be very happy.

For more of John’s insights, Check out The Curious Cat Science & Engineering Blog!

 

 

While (2016) I am posting this on my site I will also take the opportunity to include related links that may be of interest to readers of this interview.

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