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Dick and Jane have no clue

Why don’t kids care about technology? Pursuits hed: Dick and Jane have no clue dek: Why don’t kids care about technology? by Nelson King

Q: Do you understand how a computer works?

A: Yeah. It runs software.

Q: How does it run software?

A: Uh, somebody wrote some programming and the computer runs the program.

Q: How does a computer run the program?

A: (shake of the head.)

Q: Do you think it’s important to know how a computer runs a program?

A: No. (pause) It works fine for me.

The questions and answers above are almost a verbatim conversation I recently had with a young man of 17. I don’t think he was faking diffidence. He was using his dad’s computer at the time, writing a paper for school.

If you think this is another diatribe about the obtuseness of the younger generation, or a lament about the state of their scientific knowledge, you’re only partially correct. Let me offer this: Millions of us drive a car every day. How many of us could accurately explain how the car works, much less repair it? Is there any pressing need for everybody to fully understand how most of our technology works?

Of course not. For one thing, there’s so much technology that no one person could even begin to comprehend all the principles and operations involved. Nor do we need to; it is sufficient to know that specific technologies work (mostly). The majority of us rely on other people to know how things work, and we hope they can fix them.

However, would it shock you to know that the conversation above was with somebody who plans to go to college for an engineering degree? I’m afraid his attitude wasn’t unusual. You might remember that not long ago, college professors raised a hue and cry because they were getting high-school graduates who couldn’t spell or put together a coherent sentence. Something similar is happening to many of our future engineers and scientists. Dick and Jane have no clue when it comes to what makes things tick.

The reality of this is hard for me to fathom. I have many friends who are engineers–electrical, chemical, and biological–and one of their most common characteristics is that they like to take things apart to see what makes them tick. I’ve always thought, “Show me a true engineer and I’ll show you a house (or at least a workroom) filled with half-built gadgets and piles of things half-destructed. Hands-on tinkering with electrical and mechanical things is part of the ritual of engineering.”

In the life of an engineer and many a scientist, there are those physical things–such as the first solder burn, the first electric shock, the skinned knuckle–that help define a sense of things and their reality. What happens if a kid goes through early life without these experiences? Are these kids who are entering engineering schools at colleges all over the country not true engineers in spirit? To what extent is hands-on knowledge necessary?

Unfortunately, these are not simple questions. From what I’ve heard and read, a lot of people–not just educators, but also businesspeople–are asking similar questions. In the same way that businesspeople complained about new hires who couldn’t write an intelligible memo, they’re now finding technical graduates who have very little idea or even curiosity about how things work. Why is this significant?

Start with the notion that most innovation comes from understanding the rules and then breaking them. Without understanding underlying principles and dynamics, it’s difficult to be creative. There are many studies showing that for most human beings, this understanding comes from both formal learning and personal experience.

This is easy to illustrate. Think of a five-year-old who picks up her dad’s hammer. It’s apparent just from picking it up that it’s heavy. She experiences gravity at work. It’s all she can do to lift the hammer and swing it like she’s seen her dad do. As she attempts to swing the hammer, she experiences the idea that heavy objects moved continuously with some force develop momentum. She doesn’t know what the word momentum is, much less the mathematics behind it; that’s at least 10 years in her future. However, when that hammer comes down on her thumb, she will not only know things about momentum, but also its consequences.

Does that experience and others like it make her a better engineer when, say, she’s designing crash-proof child restraints for cars? Certainly an intuitive feel for the forces at work will condition her ideas about what is necessary to counteract them.

Perhaps she is the first person to develop a new type of sponge-like material that absorbs an amazing amount of impact without requiring more room than is found in the back seat of a standard car. In the practical world of business and industry, people can have all kinds of creative (crazy) ideas, but those who are grounded in the reality of how things work are more likely to have creative (crazy) ideas that work.

The intuitive experience is important–a necessary but not sufficient condition for a scientist’s or engineer’s grasp of reality. The little girl who learns that a fast-moving heavy object can do damage should also learn to explain how this happens. It means giving names to parts of the experience–energy, force, and momentum. Eventually, if she’s going to be an engineer or scientist, she’ll also need to know the mathematics and physics involved.

So why don’t kids get into understanding how things work? At this point I’m going to put on my curmudgeon’s hat and describe a few prevailing attitudes among the young (and many old):

Math phobia: This probably needs no explaining. Among themselves, kids talk about math as if it were some sort of disease, something to suffer through. How many kids are willing to admit they like math?

Geekhood: Being a geek is still not cool. Bill Gates may be worth $80 billion, but he’s still a geek, and that ain’t good. Worse, he could be a nerd. Nerds and geeks are not cool. Nobody in his or her right mind would want to be a geek or a nerd.

Gender bias: Everybody knows girls can’t do math (don’t they?). And besides, for a girl, being a geek or a nerd is doubly uncool.

Computers: Hey, I love Macs. No need to understand anything about how it works, and that’s good for those people who don’t need to know. Unfortunately, a lot of young computer scientists and engineers feel the same way.

At this point I’m shaking my head and thinking, “Well, certainly there is some truth in this about today’s kids. But how much?” Do all the societal attitudes and technological barriers add up to a generation of young people who are not capable of providing the engineers and scientists needed by our increasingly technological world? While I’ve been reading articles not only in the computer industry press but also in the public media, and I’ve seen some TV pieces with this angle, I hardly have the sense that many perceive this as a national crisis.

How could they? There certainly aren’t any hard numbers. If Dick and Jane don’t have the proper experience and background to be good engineers, scientists, and computer experts, that fact is apparent primarily to the people most directly involved in teaching and employing them. Besides, there are a lot of kids, so there will be exceptions–perhaps many–for any type of behavior or attitude. We have a tendency to be misled by the exceptions; they get most of the media coverage.

If there will ever be any evidence (and only a slight possibility of proof) of the idea that American kids aren’t ready to work and live in a technological world, it will come from competition with countries whose kids do have the right experiences and attitudes. Japan? Russia? Great Britain? Some countries in Southeast Asia? Possibly, but these countries have problems of their own. Other evidence may be in the long view. A very important book of science fiction, “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapledon (1930), describes with great insight the cycle of technological advance followed by decline: Humanity reaches heights of knowledge and then proceeds to forget how to maintain it, each time sinking back into near-animal existence. The theme of civilizations living on technology they no longer understand has become a staple of science fiction. The theme persists because it could become fact.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Enterprise Pursuits, a look at the business of back-end computing, every Tuesday on ComputerUser.com.

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