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If we want more and better engineers, our education system needs a shake-up.

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School has articulated the difference between "sustaining" innovation and "disruptive" innovation: While a disruptive innovation may have initial poor performance when measured by traditional metrics, such a change can result in superior results in the long term. I believe it is time for disruptive transformation in our educational system if our country is to have a workforce capable of meeting the challenges we face. I'd like to offer three disruptive innovations to challenge some basic elements of our educational system - or at least get folks riled up enough to take meaningful action.

Disruption 1. Stop teaching math and science in the fifth and sixth grades. These are formative years in children's lives, and we seem to be doing a pretty good job of discouraging large numbers of students from pursuing math, science, and technology-based careers at this juncture. Let's use that block of time to have kids do project-based work on topics that are relevant to society and interesting to this age group. Math, science, technology, design, and problem-solving strategies can be introduced through the projects and connected with what students have learned in their earlier years. They can also be introduced to teamwork and be graded on creativity. We can even call it "engineering" if we want.

Disruption 2. Don't teach calculus in high school. Is there a college out there that expects its students to know calculus prior to freshman year? Many hope students will, but the truth is, almost all colleges tell incoming students to retake calculus anyway. Better to know it well. Have you ever helped a high school student or a new freshman with calculus homework? I have, and I estimate that 90 percent of students' troubles are due to a combination of algebra mistakes, sloppiness, and lack of ability to transform a written description into an appropriate calculation. Instead of calculus, teach students how to apply math. Have them hone their algebra skills and insist on legibility.

Teach project-based problem solving in middle school, abandon high-school calculus, and shut down elite engineering colleges.

Disruption 3. Universities such as Stanford, Princeton, and Yale should close their engineering colleges. While students who attend these schools get fine educations, a larger problem is created; actually, two larger problems. First, students can't get admitted. Well sure, some tiny fraction actually do, but most students spend inordinate amounts of emotional energy trying. You might say this encourages students to apply themselves to try and do their best. Perhaps, but it also does a disservice to some of the brightest high school students: If only perfection can get them admitted, there's no room for failure, there's no room for taking chances, there's no room for exploring something that might be interesting but doesn't help them get into that prestigious school. The second problem is that we've got the wrong measure of what makes a great college. We talk about selectivity - only 1 out of 100 gets in - when we should be talking about yield. Not the traditional notion, though. Of the qualified applicants to an accredited college, how many graduate with an engineering degree? If we're really serious about increasing the number of engineers in this country, resources and accolades should be going to those engineering programs with the highest percentage of qualified applicants who graduate.

There may be other disruptions that better achieve the desired results, but it's clear to me, having worked with K-16 students for many years, that major changes are needed to increase significantly the number of those who are academically prepared and interested in tackling the enormous challenges we face.

Eugene Rutz is an academic director at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science.




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