Encouraging Students to Reach for Their Technology Dreams

Don Tennant
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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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