My job is managing people that innovate and it is blatantly obvious to me that the engine that drives the American economy is good old American Ingenuity. Great new ideas and better products generate jobs and prosperity.
I also spend several hours of each week coaching a middle school Destination Imagination team. Destination Imagination is a team-based "innovation" competition where teams are given difficult technical challenges and are judged on the effectiveness and creativity of their solution. This experience as a Destination Imagination team manager gives me a unique perspective on our country's next generation of innovators. These middle school kids will need to fuel the economy when all the brilliant engineers I work with retire.
I'm really concerned about this next generation of innovators. What I have learned is that these kids can develop really creative ideas, but most don't have a clue how to drill a hole, hammer a nail, or weld some pipe together. They don't have the skills to turn their ideas into actual inventions. None of them has ever taken a shop class - because shop classes were eliminated from middle schools.
I suspect a justification for eliminating shop classes in schools was based on the idea that, since manufacturing in the USA is moving over seas, teaching kids how to make stuff just isn't that important anymore. I actually agree that the need for manufacturing skills in the USA is declining and should be de-emphasized.
The flaw in the decision to eliminate shop classes is that you simply can't design something if you don't have a clue how it will be built. That's the problem I see with my Destination Imagination kids. I thought I would be teaching these kids creative thinking skills and instead I've become a shop teacher.
Many people don't understand that Engineering projects don't produce products, they produce documents - mechanical drawings, assembly procedures, circuit schematics, bill of materials, and computer code. These are then handed off to the manufacturing department (often in China) to build. Imagine trying to build a product from drawings done by an engineer that didn't have a clue how parts were fabricated or assembled. In non-engineering speak, it's sort of like writing a cook book when you have never been taught how to use an oven, stove, or mixer.
The really good engineers are the tinkerers -and shop classes provide the skill and confidence to tinker. While math and science classes are fundamental to engineering - these classes are not the key factor in producing outstanding engineering innovators. I can say this because I have hired and mentored over 50 engineers straight out of college. The really good engineers came from childhoods where they have taken so many things apart and built so many things in their garage that they know when to use a screw instead of a nail, when to use aluminum instead of stainless steel, and what types of capacitors blow-up when installed backwards. When I interview engineers, my key questions are, "Tell me about something really cool you built as a kid" and "What engineering projects do you have going on now at home?" I don't give them calculus or physics quizzes and I don't look at their grades.
Regardless of the reason that shop classes have been eliminated, if the next generation of innovators can't convert their ideas into build-able products, American Ingenuity that fuels our economy will be in jeopardy.
What to do? I don't think working with the school district would be effective so I'm just focusing on my little corner of the world. I want my kids to be the rare and valuable employee in 10 years that know how to both design and build break-through products. This evening, a co-worker taught my Destination Imagination team members how to make electromagnets from common materials. This solved a big problem that was preventing their Destination Imagination invention from working. They were giddy. My solution is that I'll provide my kids shop classes (one way or another) so they have all the skills and confidence they need to turn great ideas into working inventions.
What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments box below.
- Scott -
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