Innovation and Child’s Play: Those Wild and Crazy Engineers

Stephen DeAngelis

September 3, 2010

Back in the 1950s when coonskin caps and hoola hoops were all the rage, it was almost cliché to hear that children played “cowboys and Indians.” As insensitive as those pretend games might have been, many researchers believe that children need to put down the Wii remotes and/or X-Box controllers and find other amusements that better engage their imaginations. In a recent series of posts about creativity in America, I discussed an article that focused on the importance of imagination in solving real world problems. Another article in that series noted that many of the people who have been awarded MacArthur Grants (so-called genius awards) had vivid imaginations as children. That same article noted that liberal arts doesn’t enjoy a monopoly on creativity and that successful individuals involved in science and engineering also demonstrate remarkable creativity abilities.

 

Unfortunately, many kids still think subjects like math and science are boring. One well-known effort to help kids think otherwise is the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. The Teachers Academy, supported by professional golfer Phil Mickelson and his wife Amy, doesn’t interact directly with children, rather it trains teachers in new techniques to help make hard sciences more exciting. According to the Academy’s website, its mission is: “To conduct a professional development academy for teachers of grades 3-5 that results in improved learning experiences for their students by:

 

  • enhancing grade appropriate mathematics and science content knowledge;
  • demonstrating the interrelationships between scientific inquiry and mathematical problem solving;
  • using the tools of mathematics to build understanding and connections to science concepts; and
  • modeling ‘best practices’ in teaching and learning.”

 

Another professional golfer, Tiger Woods, sponsors the Tiger Woods Learning Center that, among other things, lets Southern California students of middle and high school age explore potential careers in science and technology. According to the website, students “can choose from over 50 different careers such as marine biology, environmental integrity, aerospace rocketry, biotechnology and business entrepreneurship.” Those accepted to the Career Exploration Program are exposed to “opportunities to learn about careers through technology and hands-on projects. For instance, students enrolled in veterinary medicine perform dissections, analyze X-rays and have the opportunity to visit a nearby pet hospital and observe a pet examination!”

 

German companies have now joined those trying to get children to exchange playing video games for playing “scientists and engineers” [“Child’s play to nurture next generation of engineers,” by Daniel Schäfer, Financial Times, 19 August 2010]. Schäfer reports:

“With his big blue safety goggles and oversized apron, little Lukas resembles a miniature chemistry professor as he blows air with a drinking straw into a transparent plastic bucket filled with water. ‘I am producing bubbly bubbles that are filled with air,’ the five-year-old explains excitedly. This water experiment at a day care centre in Ludwigshafen, south-west Germany, has shown Lukas that the environment is full of air. But the implications are far wider. Experiments such as these form part of corporate Germany’s increasingly desperate effort to tackle its most pressing long-term problem: the drastic skills shortage. In spite of an unemployment rate that still stands at 7.6 per cent, employers in Europe’s largest economy are faced with a shortage of mathematicians, engineers, electricians and other skilled professionals that threatens to undermine the country’s position as one of the strongest industrial economies in the world.”

I have pointed out on numerous occasions that the United States is suffering a similar fate (see, for example, my post entitled Education and Employment). Schäfer continues:

“With the country’s population rapidly ageing and the educational system failing to spark interest in sciences, Germany’s skills shortage is expected to increase dramatically; Prognos, a research institute, recently forecast that by 2030, there will be a shortfall of 5.2m professionals. ‘We will have to do much more for education and research, otherwise we will face a very dark future,’ says Franz Fehrenbach, chief executive of Bosch, the German car parts and industrial conglomerate. The scale of the problem is such that many German companies have desperately held on to their skilled workforce in spite of last year’s economic decline, the steepest since the second world war. So, alongside embarking on a poaching battle over the existing professionals and trying to attract more immigrants – a hotly debated topic in Germany – a growing number of senior managers has been starting initiatives to address a problem that in 2009 cost the German economy about €15bn ($19bn, £12.3bn).”

The initiatives to which Schäfer refers are equivalent to major league baseball supporting little league baseball or professional golf’s efforts to increase interest in the game through the First Tee organization. He explains:

“Five years ago, Mr Fehrenbach and eight other senior managers founded Wissensfabrik – ‘Knowledge factory’ – which promotes science and economics among schoolchildren and fosters children’s language skills. Since then, the organisation has launched an array of projects to improve an education system that seems increasingly unable to cater for the needs of engineering, electronics and vehicle makers, the backbone of Germany’s export-driven economy.”

What motivated Fehrenbach and his colleagues to begin their efforts were some pretty sobering statistics.

“In Germany, more than 30 per cent of students in technical sciences drop out of university early. According to estimates by VDMA, the German engineering association, 65,000 engineering freshmen started university in 2009 but only 31,000 finished their final exams – far less than were needed by industry. Gerhard Rübling, head of personnel and executive board member at Trumpf, a family-held laser machinery maker and a founding member of Wissensfabrik, says the situation is dramatic. ‘The requirements for engineering studies are too tough and the curricula do not always suit the needs of the industry. We need better tutorials and teaching plans at universities and we have to ask ourselves if technical subjects gain enough attention at school.’ While many German companies work with universities to ensure that students are taught the skills that will help in their professional lives, the Wissensfabrik is focusing on children’s formative school and even preschool years. ‘We want to support and at the same time challenge the existing educational system,’ says Eva Müller, Wissensfabrik’s chief executive. Wissensfabrik finds companies that are willing to build and finance partnerships with schools, education facilities and childcare centres. It then provides those partners with learning materials and teacher training while also monitoring and supporting the projects.”

The German education system is not alone in churning out students who lack the skills that make them employable. In a post about education in India, I noted that every year Indian colleges graduate 3.2 million students. However, only “25 percent of technical graduates and 15 percent of other graduates can be readily employed in the jobs that the recent boom has generated in the telecommunications, banking, retail, health care and information technology sectors.” [“In India, Educated but Unemployable Youths,” by Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, 4 May 2009] Lakshmi’s article indicates that about 69 percent of India’s unemployed workers are educated but lack the necessary skills to land a job. I daresay that many, if not most, of the educational systems around the globe produce similar graduates.

 

Schäfer goes on to report that industry executives are also looking to mine fertile but currently underutilized fields of talent — women, older workers, and migrants. He explains:

“The education system is only part of the problem. Europe’s export champion has for years blatantly ignored a large pool of existing talent and skill resources. ‘We definitely have a lot of catching up to do with women, older people and the migrants who already live in Germany,’ says Tanja Nackmayr, deputy director for education at BDA, the German employers’ association. Progress has already been made with the over-55 age group. In the past 10 years, the employment rate of people aged 55 to 64 has shot up from 37.4 per cent to 56.2 per cent. The number of female employees in industrial jobs is also on the rise, reflecting an increase in the number of university-educated women. But Europe’s engineering heartland has so far failed to bring migrants into technical or business jobs. The number of migrants who fail to finish school is more than twice the average. The skills shortage is so worrying that Wissensfabrik has evolved into a corporate mass movement, enlisting more than 70 companies, including some of Germany’s largest industrial groups, such as Siemens, Thyssen-Krupp and Continental. Wissensfabrik has worked with 120,000 children and adults at more than 1,600 universities, advanced education facilities, schools and childcare centres. ‘A successful recruitment strategy has to bank on long-term projects across the whole educational chain – from the early upbringing in kindergarten and the family to a lifelong, on-the-job training,’ says Henning Kagermann, one of the founders of German software group SAP and president of Acatech, an academy that promotes technical studies and collaborates with Wissensfabrik.”

Returning to the work being done with children by Wissensfabrik, Schäfer reports:

“Projects via the ‘knowledge factory’ range from language training for small children – dubbed ‘narrative workshops’, as childcare workers learn how to teach children to tell stories – and one-week programmes, funded by companies, in which primary school pupils are taught natural sciences and technical subjects.”

Although everyone seems to agree that students need to become more excited about pursuing careers in science, technology, and engineering, the question remains: Do these programs work? A study found on the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy website concluded that teachers who are understand and apply inquiry techniques are much more successful in getting their students involved. [“The Impact of Varying Levels of Science Inquiry Instruction on Student’s Abilities and Understandings of the Nature of Science,” by Mary Ibe and Rebecca Deutscher, Lewis Center for Educational Research, April 2004]. Ibe and Deutscher conclude:

“The results of this study indicate that students may regress in their ability to understand and apply inquiry techniques if they experience a teacher who makes limited use of inquiry skills. The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 2000) indicate the need for science educators to embrace inquiry techniques in the classroom. While public education plans such as the recent ‘Science, It’s Everywhere’ program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2003) encourages families to update their view of the nature of science, a similar effort needs to be made on the teaching front. Viable teacher training in the art of inquiry teaching should not only be encouraged, but required. If science teachers are to successfully teach science through inquiry, it is important for them to experience it firsthand. (National Research Impact of Varying Levels Council,1996). The results of this study may promote classroom science teachers to more fully understand the impact on student’s abilities to problem solve when the impact of not using inquiry methods of instruction is realized.”

Schäfer indicates that in Germany the efforts of Wissensfabrik are paying off:

“At the day care facility in Ludwigshafen-Oggersheim, the small borough where former German chancellor Helmut Kohl lives, change is palpable. With the help of various experiments – part of a project dubbed ‘Vom Kleinsein zum Einstein’ (from small child to Einstein) – the 75 children have developed considerable enthusiasm for sciences while learning new words, such as those for various tools or apparatus.”

Schäfer concludes with the observation that despite anyone’s best efforts children will always have a mind of their own. Remember little Lukas blowing bubbles in a glass of water? Schäfer reports that he “looks keen to learn more about the ‘bubbly bubbles’.” Does that mean he wants to be a scientist when he grows up? When asked “about his future career, Lukas is resolute: ‘I want to become a policeman’, comes the reply.” I guess Lukas has yet to be convinced that scientists and engineers can be exciting “wild and crazy” guys.