From The Publisher: Teach the ‘Why' and ‘When'

November 1, 2005
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The basics of writing include telling the reader the "who," what," "where," "how," "when" and "why." Stories with the first four of those basics, but without the last two, are incomplete. They inform, but not to their full potential. Likewise, education for engineers and shop-floor operators often include all the basics, but often lack the "why" and "when" to make schooling complete.

The recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) concluded that as students progress from elementary through high school, they become increasingly disengaged from mathematics. One of the causes cited for this disengagement is that they become dissatisfied with learning only "how" to execute mathematical formulas. The National Council of Teachers and Mathematics found that there needs to be more education that emphasizes the context of math and its relation to real-world problems and situations.

In educating both engineers and shop-floor operators, changing the curriculum not only better prepares those already pursuing these careers, but it can attract more students to these occupations. In an April 2005 interview with Time magazine, Texas Instruments' Chairman Tom Engibous, an engineer himself, identified the crisis in the lack of engineers graduating in the United States. According to Engibous, only 5% of U.S. graduates are earning degrees in engineering compared to 46% of graduates in China. In that same interview, Engibous identifies the lack of real-world applications as a reason for the decline in interest in engineering.

"You study Maxwell's equations, thermodynamics, calculus and you have no clue as to why. What would be much more valuable in freshman year is to teach how an iPod works or an airplane flies, and then work backward," Engibous says.

Developing a process, product or measurement strategy requires an engineer to be creative. He must not only understand "what" math formulas to use, and "how" to use them, but "why" certain formulas apply more than others and "when" to apply them. By having this knowledge, the engineer will be better equipped to handle unexpected situations and actually move his company forward through innovative application of his skills.

Operators often understand "how" to run equipment, but don't understand the "why" of what they are doing. "They can punch the buttons and program the equipment, but many of them don't really know much more than that," one top-level executive recently told me.

It's not enough to have a partial education. However complete one's training may seem, if the curriculum or training does not lead one to a deeper understanding of the principles, formulas and methods being applied, the long-term result can be disastrous for the individual, the company and domestic manufacturing. Engineers and operators have the basics; now they need to be taught the "why" and "when" to maintain the innovative edge that puts the United States ahead of its competitors.

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