Sunday, 29 March 2015

Making Engineers: Lessons from the iFoundry#1: Words Matter

One of the key benefits identified by those responsible for the iFoundry (an attempt to bring Olin's groundbreaking approach to engineering education to the University of Illinois) was students' enhanced identification as engineers.

They were not the first to think that this was an important aspect of engineering education. Curtin University of Technology in Australia addresses its students as ‘student engineers’."There is a subtle but important distinction between an engineering student and a student engineer."

Like iFoundry faculty Curtin think that the words they use are important. In " A Whole New Engineer", the account of the founding of the iFoundry, they cite the Heath Brothers book "Made to Stick" about how the use of "sticky language" can make the difference between success and failure in change management.

Words do matter. Today's "engineering students" (being given a STEM education by scientists and mathematicians who tell them that they are being prepared to be the oompa loompas of science) identify as part of STEM.

Many of the brightest become "STEM ambassadors", persuading more kids (especially girls) to study STEM subjects, even though we already have a massive oversupply of both candidates and graduates in engineering education.

So, our best and brightest students have had their enthusiasm and goodwill to others exploited to serve an ideological agenda and the promotion of the interests of non-engineers. It's a sad state of affairs.

iFoundry encourages these keen and idealistic students to take part in activities such as Engineers without Borders, using their skills and knowledge to serve real needs, and identifying with their fellow engineers around the world. This is encouraging students to identify as engineers, and bringing them into our community of practice.

We would argue that we need to take the E out of STEM, because all most people hear is the first word. They think it's all science. In "A Whole New Engineer" they trace this fallacy back to the lack of understanding of the distinction between the four parts of STEM of the American military in the Second World War. So STEM basically means the same as "Boffin", but we are not boffins, we are engineers. Even scientists don't want to be boffins.

Scientists and mathematicians didn't make the atomic bomb for those WWII generals, put men on the moon, or create today's ubiquitous electronic devices and air travel for all. Engineers did all that and more. We made today's world. Scientists are our ugly friend - we will need to shake them off if they are going to steal our clothes.