Encouraging Students to Reach for Their Technology Dreams

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Eight Trends Driving the Future of Information Technology

Whether or not there is a shortage in the United States of university graduates with degrees in the STEM disciplines is a hotly contested issue with smart, informed people on both sides of the debate. I can't say the same thing about the question of whether we should be discouraging our young people from pursuing educations and careers in the STEM disciplines, because I have yet to hear a sensible argument in favor of abandoning technology and ceding technological development to the rest of the world. So if you're discouraging kids who would otherwise be inclined to pursue an education and career in technology, you're doing those kids and this country a tremendous disservice.


That disservice is being performed on another level by our high schools and universities, which aren't doing a good enough job of preparing students to be successful in technology-related fields. There was an article in the New York Times earlier this month that pointed out that university-level technology programs tend to be too focused on theory at the expense of practice, and that students are being driven out of these programs as a result. Here's an excerpt:

Matthew Moniz bailed out of engineering at Notre Dame in the fall of his sophomore year. He had been the kind of recruit most engineering departments dream about. He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering.


But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. "I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering's all about the application, which they really didn't teach too well," he says. "It was just like, Do these practice problems, then you're on your own.'" And as he looked ahead at the curriculum, he did not see much relief on the horizon.


So Mr. Moniz, a 21-year-old who likes poetry and had enjoyed introductory psychology, switched to a double major in psychology and English, where the classes are "a lot more discussion based." He will graduate in May and plans to be a clinical psychologist. Of his four freshman buddies at Notre Dame, one switched to business, another to music. One of the two who is still in engineering plans to work in finance after graduation.


Mr. Moniz's experience illustrates how some of the best-prepared students find engineering education too narrow and lacking the passion of other fields. They also see easier ways to make money.


Notre Dame's engineering dean, Peter Kilpatrick, will be the first to concede that sophomore and junior years, which focus mainly on theory, remain a "weak link" in technical education. He says his engineering school has gradually improved its retention rate over the past decade by creating design projects for freshmen and breaking "a deadly lecture" for 400 students into groups of 80. Only 50 to 55 percent of the school's students stayed through graduation 10 years ago. But that figure now tops 75 percent, he says, and efforts to create more labs in the middle years could help raise it further.


"We're two years into that experiment and, quite honestly, it's probably going to take 5 to 10 years before we're really able to inflesh the whole curriculum with this project-based learning," Dean Kilpatrick says.

Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis and a respected voice on STEM education and career issues, has provided a characteristically insightful analysis of the NYT article, which you can find here. Among the points made by Matloff is this one:

Yes, at a good university STEM majors can be pretty daunting--tons of work, lots of theory, etc. Well, it SHOULD be that way. "No pain, no gain." I'd be the first to say that [computer science] curricula could stand to teach less theory, and for that matter fewer all-nighters, but yes, programming assignments should be challenging and creative. That means one must build foundation, which takes time and much effort.

Matloff is absolutely right to keep the bar high, and to demand hard work and a lot of effort from graduates of technology programs. He also makes it clear that he's an advocate for less of a focus on theory. What needs to be more strongly emphasized, however, is that there should be no implication that a program with less theory, that is more project-based, somehow requires less effort and hard work.


One institution that Notre Dame and other universities would do well to emulate is Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., which is all about project-based learning. My son, Dan, is a 2009 graduate of WPI, with a double major in interactive media and game development (IMGD) and professional writing. A requirement for his undergraduate IMGD degree was the successful accomplishment of a Major Qualifying Project, or MQP, which was tremendously more valuable and substantive than simply writing a thesis. In Dan's case, he and two other students worked with Walt Disney Imagineering to create an alternate reality game for visitors to the Disney California Adventure theme park.


A testimony to his preparedness to work in the real world is the fact that when he graduated, he was immediately hired by MIT Lincoln Laboratory. He recently chose to leave that job to return to WPI, where he's enrolled in the institution's first IMGD graduate program, and serving as a research assistant. Today, he's working on a project called "Empowerment" to create a game to inspire high school students to enter energy-related fields, much like the FIRST Robotics Competition inspires students in the realm of robotics.


Dan and his colleagues are doing some amazing work. He has always loved technology, and has long dreamed of a career that would enable him to inspire others to reach for their own technology-related dreams. I, for one, am thankful that no one ever tried to dissuade him from advancing technology, or from helping people who share his passion for it.

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Nov 28, 2011 10:22 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

" I have yet to hear a sensible argument in favor of abandoning technology and ceding technological development to the rest of the world. "

It makes no sense to fill a demand that doesn't exist.  The "build it and the demand will come" mindset is silly.  Universities don't crank out STEM entrepreneurs - they crank out people capable of working in entry level jobs in IT and other STEM fields.

The solution isn't to encourage people to enroll in STEM degrees.  The solution is a national economic policy that boosts our ability to compete in STEM fields.  The best solution I can think of at this time is balanced trade because trade imbalances have resulted in the flight of jobs.

If you restore fairness to our trade agreements, the STEM sectors will rebound.  Students will recognize this demand and choose STEM degrees in greater numbers.

Tricking people to go into a STEM field by painting a rosy picture will make matters worse, and result in fewer people entering the field.  Let the market work and stop enabling our trade partners to crush us because of their cheating ways.

Also, it makes little sense to train our future competition.  The H-1b and L-1 visa programs do just that.  Any temporary visa will result in a large number of people taking their knowledge gained on the job back home with them once their temporary assignment is complete.  Why on Earth are we providing on the job training for our competition?

America cannot compete so long as our current philosophy regarding trade, immigration, and economics continues.  If you are serious about competition Don, you've got to address the underlying problems that have resulted in less interest in STEM - not manipulate the minds of students to defy economics.

I wouldn't personally discourage anyone from entering STEM occupations if this interests them.  However, if they are just doing it for money they should explore all options. 

Nov 28, 2011 10:29 AM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to R. Lawson

I would say no student should go into any profession just for the money.

Nov 28, 2011 10:45 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Don Tennant

"I would say no student should go into any profession just for the money."

I agree. 

However, I had a genuine interest in journalism - still do.  The reasons I didn't pursue that was because I wasn't convinced I could share the American dream while pursuing that career. 

I wasn't looking to get rich, but I also didn't wish to be poor.  Interest in a line of work is not enough. 

Take your son for example.  I'm sure he has an interest in game development.  Unfortunately, a good deal of game development has shifted offshore mostly because of labor arbitrage.  Disney may development games in the US today, but what makes you believe that will still be the case tomorrow?

I have no knowledge that Disney will move these jobs offshore, but I know much of their work is already done offshore. 

I would be interested in a story about your son - today and then again maybe a few years from now.  Would be interesting to see if and how his views changed once he's had more time in industry.

Nov 28, 2011 11:14 AM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to R. Lawson

"The American Dream" means different things to different people. To some people, it has very little to do with money. Since I went into journalism in 1990, I haven't had the luxury of being able to keep up with the bills, or going on family vacations, or having a car for much more than half of that time. We eventually were able to buy a modest home, but had to sell it and move back into a small apartment, where I'm sitting as I write this. Yet I've lived my American Dream to the fullest.

Nov 28, 2011 11:17 AM Dan Tennant Dan Tennant  says: in response to R. Lawson

Hey Roy,

You're right on the money; game industry jobs are being shipped offshore at record pace, especially those that involve the creation of the more menial, everyday artistic assets, like foliage, basic architectural pieces, and the like -- after all, every game needs rocks and trees, but who really wants to spend time modeling them? There are algorithmic alternatives ("speedtrees" have become a big thing, for instance), but you still need someone to model and texture fifteen different sections of a wall that can be connected lego-style by the level designers. It's cheaper to outsource that kind of grunt work.

I've had the fortune of serving as the graduate representative on the IMGD steering committee, so I've been able to participate in a lot of discussion about the direction of the program, and there can be no doubt: Preparing students to be COMPETITIVE in the industry is a very big focus for them. The visual arts students, for example, are being encouraged to shift their sights towards jobs like concept artist -- it's highly creative in nature and requires a strong sense of the target demographic's culture, so it's a tough job to ship overseas.

Ironically, one of my educational goals right now is to prep myself for the possibility of shipping MYSELF overseas, having grown up in and fallen in love with Hong Kong. So, yeah, more jobs might move offshore, but good grief, maybe I'll end up going with them. =)


Nov 28, 2011 12:36 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Dan Tennant

"So, yeah, more jobs might move offshore, but good grief, maybe I'll end up going with them. =)"

Sounds like you have a bright and exciting future planned - and hopefully you get what you've obviously worked hard to achieve.

The current situation may be OK for a young person like yourself eager to move across the globe and experience what the world has to offer, but it's not a very stable national economic policy.  It doesn't leave a legacy for the generations to come.

Most people cannot simply pickup everything and move; from the perspective of "national prosperity" we don't want people to do this.  I would rather you stay here and help make our nation stronger - or at least see the American economy as "the place to be" and return once you've spent some time abroad.

We want higher value jobs to stay here and we want to build a strong service sector in STEM occupations/industries.  The fact that a young person like yourself is looking abroad concerns me about our future.  I hope it has more to do with your love of Hong Kong than with what you perceive as your prospects here at home.

Nov 28, 2011 1:04 PM Dan Tennant Dan Tennant  says: in response to R. Lawson

I think "planned" is the operative word, there. Life never works out like you plan!

"The fact that a young person like yourself is looking abroad concerns me about our future.  I hope it has more to do with your love of Hong Kong than with what you perceive as your prospects here at home."

That's a fair and perfectly valid concern, but I don't want to live overseas for the job prospects -- honestly (and somewhat oddly), my worry about being able to get a stable job overseas is precisely what has kept me from going back to Hong Kong already. I want my education to give me the opportunity to get work elsewhere; not to depend upon it, or for that matter, to rule it out.

I also don't want to live overseas forever; I want to stay mobile, and that includes coming back to the States. I'll want my kids to get their college educations here, and I'd love to go back to WPI to teach one day as a Professor. But America, for all its diversity, is culturally insular, with an ease of life too many of us take for granted. I'd like, one day, to be able to consider myself a worldly individual, and grant my kids experiences they simply will not get here. That's only going to come from travel and residence in other countries -- visiting them just won't cut it.

Nov 28, 2011 1:20 PM Jake_Leone Jake_Leone  says:

Given that certain other countries see fit to tariff our goods (Why are Harley's tariffed in China?).  And see fit to keep their currencies artificially pegged to value of the 1990's dollar.  Americans cannot directly compete with labor in these countries.  To a great extent, it is easy to transport certain jobs overseas, the only jobs that cannot be are those that require cultural skills.  So the natural complementary position of most U.S. workers is to be the direct seller of the goods that are made overseas. 

Entirely the case, because this country has failed to take the responsibility to educate (through carrot and stick) the rest of the world that they need to either trade fairly, or face (very reasonable) economic consequences.  Failing to do this, sets us up for failure when the next economic earthquake hits.  Better to suffer a series of small tremblers than one big drop in the value of the dollar, because we aren't employing enough people at home to pay our international debts.

Don, people get jobs because they offer a complementary skill.  If you choose to compete, and so does everyone else, you are creating (worse-than) casino odds for yourself and your family.  So don't directly compete, if you their are 10 overseas grads for every one U.S. grad, that should tell you something right there.  The Industry and Business interests will not stop until they have made sure that the value of your profession is comparable to world-supply of people who can do your position.

The equations dictate it to every corporate officer.

And isn't that exactly what we have seen?  What is "Compete America" anyway, but a high-priced lobbying group whose primary goal is to reduce the labor cost in the United States by quietly recognizing a huge over-supply of labor in Foreign countries, inventing a labor shortage myth here in the U.S. (hyping that myth for twenty years) and then fighting to preserve its franchise.

It is easier to import a worker from overseas than to start the interview process at home.

Getting a good paying job isn't about choosing the less-decadent work, over the more puritanical, it's about recognizing what about you that is unique, what items you can improve, and entering a profession that others might not have recognized a need for or desire/decision (what's the difference?) to enter.  If no one can compete with you on looks, voice, and musical talent, you may well be less of a fool, than someone who thinks they can compete just on IQ and degrees in the United States, when industry prefers to hire people overseas at 1/10 the U.S. living wage.

Nov 28, 2011 1:37 PM Jake_Leone Jake_Leone  says: in response to Jake_Leone

Food for Future Thought Dept:

In fact on this, I think you are better off studying the culture of India or China, then applying that to a management degree  and then try and get a job at a U.S. tech company (which is likely really more of sales facade than anything else).

After all, knowing the cultural norms of the country where most of the engineers for your company are located can help you acquire and keep the new face of U.S. management. 

How to remove as many your country-folks jobs and site them in a countries that have no intent to keep the correct the value of their currency (no environmental laws, no response to terrorism) when the equations tell them that it will just mean a revolution or an incumbancy-kicking-out-fest.

Nov 28, 2011 6:19 PM hoapres hoapres  says: in response to Don Tennant

>> I would say no student should go into any profession just for the money <<

I agree.

But on the other hand, when UC Berkeley and Stanford Engineering grads are homeless and on food stamps then you may sing a different tune.

What is needed but won't happen is a reduction of the number of STEM graduates.  Encourage the very best by closing down mediocre programs and sending resources to the best.  This won't happen because academia is a big industry.


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