With high unemployment and a shortage of high-tech degree holders, President Obama wants more students in the hard sciences. But what is he really asking of them?
Ever since I can remember, word on the street has been that the United States needs more engineers if we’re going to compete with Asia in tomorrow’s global economy. After an October meeting with his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, President Obama affirmed as much:
“The businesses represented here tell me they’re having a hard time finding high-skilled workers to fill their job openings. And that’s because today only 14 percent of all undergraduate students enroll in what we call the STEM subjects -– science, technology, engineering, and math. Of those students, one-third will switch out of those fields, and only about 2 in 5 will graduate with a STEM degree or certification within six years.
“So these are the jobs of the future. These are the jobs that China and India are cranking out. Those students are hungry because they understand if they get those skills they can find a good job, they can create companies, they can create businesses, create wealth. And we’re falling behind in the very fields we know are going to be our future.”
So what’s the hold-up? We’ve known about this problem for two decades, and the economy has been in the tank for the last three years. Why aren’t more students choosing and finishing these job-securing degrees?
Christopher Drew in a recent NYT article claims the answer is straightforward: STEM degrees are too hard, for two reasons. First, the applied sciences are essentially that—applied. So it’s a lot more difficult to “fudge the numbers” and inflate GPAs for sub-par performance in the hard sciences (given that “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” doesn’t fly in the aerospace industry), than for, say, English or political science students. (Hold your fire liberal arts majors; I too have a B.A.) Second, engineering profs tend to take a you’re-not-worth-my-time-until-you’ve-made-it-through-differential-equations approach to freshmen and sophomores. But as someone who graduated from a respected engineering program and now works in the field, I propose there might be one more factor discouraging high school seniors from choosing a STEM degree: their humanity.
In an earlier post on work, I argued that creation is in need of repair, and we humans have been given the task of restoring it. “But the goal of engineering,” as recently expressed by one of my (uncharacteristically thoughtful) engineering buddies, “is the exploitation of nature. That’s why we approach a problem with the assumption that nature will be working against us.” At the risk of sounding like a tree-hugging Avatar fanatic, there is something inhumane about that. And this anti-humanity is humorously obvious in the life of engineering undergraduates.
Our nights and weekends are spent calculating Laplace transforms or programming microcontrollers to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Our home away from home is a sterile, windowless computer lab where we endure crisp 65-degree temperatures, excessive fluorescent lighting, and the odors of our–much smarter—foreign friends (which result from a turmeric-saturated diet, infrequent showering, and an affinity for the same wool sweater…even in August). And though we often forget to eat, some of our peers (one of whom might be female—we think) will inevitably indulge, rather loudly, in a scrumptious Snickers bar. And what is the prize for which we tolerate all this starving, staring, stinking, swearing, smacking, and shivering? Utter mastery of one piece of creation. (For EEs it’s the electron. And, truth be told, a good portion of our day involves silently cussing the little beggars for refusing to behave according to our wishes.)
But humor aside, the product of this process is a human tool, equipped with the latest techniques for breaking nature in half and recasting her, sometimes for the benefit of society. And therein lies the rub: we are trained to apply knowledge indiscriminately—no wisdom required. Questions like “What’s the physical world for and how ought I approach it?” are never even alluded to in our curriculum. “Engineering Ethics” courses are not only morally and philosophically shallow (mine was a single lecture, given by a former engineer turned lawyer, and might have been titled “Tips for Staying out of Jail”), they seem to hint at the questionableness of our work. (Has anyone ever been required to take “Music Ethics?”) Furthermore, these courses (purportedly) focus on what to and not to do with the results of our labor and don’t even pretend to address the engineering process itself.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, our intuition tells us that creation doesn’t exist simply for our purposes. (That’s why Al Gore can shed almost believable tears over global warming.) In fact, I would argue that as humans, we further intuit a particular responsibility to look after her. Majoring in a STEM subject requires denying that intuition, and as Mr. Brown points out in “Saving the World, Professionalized,” Millennials (though misguided) are anything but interested in exploiting the world we feel entrusted to mend. I think that’s the reason the most satisfied engineers work at Facebook.
This is not a tirade against “those greedy capitalists;” it’s an attempt to acknowledge that we, as humans, are inherently moral and have a natural inkling that there’s more to nature than meets the eye. It’s an argument for wise technicians. Notice the LORD’s key requirement for the folks he recruited to manufacture His sanctuary.
“Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work.” –Exodus 35:35
We can’t convince enough students to dive into subjects like “Solid-State Electronics” because engineering is hard. It’s hard like spouting the multiplication table from 1-20 (something a mere machine can do) is hard. But it’s also hard like selling the family farm (something a mere machine can’t understand) is hard. That’s why it’s unattractive.
Read Jace’s response to Greg Forster here.