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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
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TEACHING: A Nation of Techies - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

The U.S. needs a more tech-savvy populace. Here’s what you can do to help.

Students who are not studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics generally know very little about how technology works, often distrust it and, yet, are avid consumers of it—cell phones, iPods and all the rest. In a democracy, this lack of knowledge can have dire consequences, not the least of which are large drops in research budgets. If our nation’s populace isn’t knowledgeable about science and technology, the related issues won’t get the attention and funding they need.

What can engineering and engineering technology professors do about it? They can teach a multidisciplinary course on technological literacy for both nonengineering and engineering students. The courses will not only provide a campus service but also help reduce the isolation of those in engineering.
Tech literacy courses will be well subscribed if they count as a lab science elective or as part of the university’s general education requirements. We can help by talking it up to students and finding ways to reward professors who teach these courses.

Engineering and engineering technology students could also benefit from more technological courses. Try incorporating technological information from outside your discipline through short discussions in lectures, laboratory assignments, projects and extra-credit projects. These categories may help spark some ideas:

Common Applications. Ask the students to apply their knowledge to common applications. Reaction kinetics has applications in cooking, and students studying electricity could be asked to make a simple electric motor.

Product Use. Ask students to think about how specific products are used and how they could be used differently: The heat produced by light bulbs is usually unwanted, but sometimes light bulbs can be a convenient small heat source, for example.

Supplemental Technologies. Tell your students that new products are rarely the result of a single discipline. Something as simple as a windshield wiper has electrical, mechanical, materials and chemical aspects and requires manufacturing help from industrial engineers.

Different Job Functions. Discuss unusual jobs of engineers and how their training is useful. Engineers work for financial and venture capital companies, as patent attorneys and as medical doctors.

Applications of Engineering Principles to Aid People. The opportunity to help people motivates many engineering students. From creating quiet lawn mowers to developing inexpensive hurricane-proofing for houses, engineering is vital to the way people and technology interact.

If you are concerned about the general lack of technological literacy in the United States, you are not alone. By joining with others, we can address the problem by teaching tech literacy courses to nonengineering students and incorporating more general technological information in our engineering and technology courses.

Phillip Wankat is director of undergraduate degree programs in the department of engineering education and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue’s chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at purdue@asee.org.

 

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TEACHING: A Nation of Techies - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
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LAST WORD: The Terrible Two's - By Clive L. Dym
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