By Irving Kott
PREPARATION FOR AN ENGINEERING
CAREER SHOULD BEGIN WELL BEFORE A STUDENT ENTERS COLLEGE.
The time is long past to establish and strengthen academic
standards in universities throughout the United States. A
positive step in that direction would be elimination of remedial
education at all senior level educational institutions. This
is particularly important for critical professional disciplines
such as engineering. The remedies for high school graduates
with academic deficiencies should be addressed at community
colleges and private institutions.
There are too many students entering colleges and universities
who are deficient in English or mathematics. Frequently, they
are deficient in both. They progress from kindergarten through
12th grade courtesy of social promotions, and the process
doesn't stop at the high school door. Many of these
ill-prepared and poorly motivated students go on to obtain
undergraduate and even graduate degrees. Their paths are lubricated
by tweaking the curricula to the lowest academic standards
by professors who rarely assign grades measured by competent
standards of scholastic performance. The situation in disciplines
other than engineering, mathematics, or the physical sciences,
such as education, where the training of teachers for the
K-12 takes place, is even worse.
Remediation in the basic skills of reading, writing, and
mathematics at the university level is one of the major reasons
that academic standards are declining. Remediation programs
divert attention and resources from legitimate higher education
programs. They lower the academic level at which professional
level courses should be taught. Professors confronted with
so many underskilled, underachieving students have little
choice but to "dumb down" course content and inflate
grades. The current academic environment almost demands such
a response. Students who have the capacity and motivation
to perform university-level work don't get the rigorous,
challenging, professionally enhancing courses they deserve.
Preparation for an engineering career should commence long
before a student enters college. Youngsters who plan to enter
engineering, or for that matter a career in mathematics or
one of the physical sciences, should prepare themselves by
following a rigorous and challenging academic path in high
school. They should have four years of English, and plenty
of strong math and science courses, along with a foreign language.
A few years ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times pointed
out the poor performance of United States students in mathematics
compared with the other advanced, industrialized countries
of the world. It went on to name the country where secondary
school students ranked the highest, which surprisingly was
the Czech Republic. According to the article, the usual class
size in the Czech Republic at that time was about 40 students.
The only audio-visual equipment available to the teacher was
a chalk-board, and classrooms were not equipped with computers.
The situation in the Czech Republic makes it obvious that
the problems besetting our educational system cannot be solved
simply by throwing billions more dollars at it, as some educators
would have the public believe.
As engineering educators, we need to seriously think about
the shortcomings of our educational system. Our society and
economic future are at stake. We owe it to the nation and
the engineering profession. So much of our high-tech employment
and manufacturing jobs have already gone overseas. This process
is taking place not just because the domestic wage scale is
higher here than in India or China. Fifty-five percent of
doctoral degrees last year were awarded to foreign students.
What we are witnessing is the dumbing down of America, and
this laissez-faire attitude toward academic remediation at
senior level educational institutions is a significant contributing
Irving Kott is a professor of civil engineering at California
State University at Los Angeles.