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Engineering Starts With People

In a previous post, I mentioned that three ways how school fail us;
1) They teach people what to think instead of how.
2) They do a great job separating the theory from the practical.
3) They test for basic types of intelligence.

Soon afterwards, I attended an interesting talk by Dr. Vincent P. Manno, Dean of Faculty at F.W. Olin College of Engineering, where he highlighted how they solve these main problems in their curriculum (It’s hard to list down everything that was mentioned so I’ll just highlight the main ones);

  1. Make students realize that information is a means not an end. In Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, he mentions how the era for the information worker is nearly over, and that we’re on the threshold of the innovator’s era. So basically, memorizing facts, applying equations and filling up exam sheets is no longer sufficient. As students we need to recognize that knowledge is gained so it could be applied to solve interesting problems. Which incidentally happens to be Seth Godin’s advice to parents and educators in his ebook Stop Stealing Dreams; “Teach children to lead and solve interesting problems.”
  2. Focus on active project-based learning. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent many hours in high school and university asking myself why I was committing some things to memory when I could just google them whenever I want.While of course, it is important for people to have the fundamentals (because how else would we know what to google?), the disconnection between details of a topic and the big picture ends up being a source of frustration for many students, because we keep on asking, “What’s the point?” Project-based learning is interesting because students have a goal and they obtain the knowledge to help them achieve that goal. It’s basically what Easton Lachapelle did; at 14, he used online resources to teach himself about electronics to build a robotic hand. Later on he wend on to develop an affordable prosthetic arm using 3D printing (Read about him here). He learned topics because he wanted to solve a problem, and putting all that knowledge into context helps retain it. I don’t know about you, but I remember classes where the content was forgotten two days after the final exam, which is quite sad really.
  3. Encourage attitudes of entrepreneurs and innovators. That means interdisciplinary thinking, design, empathy and most importantly creativity. The university has no academic departments, the curriculum is interdisciplinary, and isn’t just limited to science and math-related topics but also humanities and social science. innovators are risk-takers, and by default, students don’t like risks because with risk-taking, the chances of failing goes up. So students like to play it safe. They like to know what’s in the syllabus, and they like the concept of a clear pathway to an A. The presenter gave an example where students were supposed to come up with a game that would be fun for a fourth-grader, and then they were evaluated by actual fourth-graders.

Most importantly, I found myself asking, if your school and university doesn’t have a hands-on program, what should an individual do? One idea is to work on interesting engineering projects on the side; for instance, learn how to code for the purpose of building a personal website. Or build a car for your birthday like this 14-year-old girl. If working on something practical is too hard and time consuming, one could start by coming up with ten ideas to build the idea muscle as James Altucher writes about in his blog. Ten ideas for what? Any problem you see around you.

“Ten ways to motivate students”

“Ten start-up ideas”

“Ten ways to solve the youth unemployment problem in Mombasa” {am currently working on this one so if you’d like to give me ideas, email me at}

Most importantly, if you’re an engineer, remember that the basis of engineering is not the machines and the computers and the codes; engineering starts with people and ends with people. Tweet this. 

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Published inCareerEducationEngineering
  • Good observations ahscribbles. the transition from information to the ability for solving interesting problems is what the world needs the most.

    • ahechoes

      Thank you Puneet for your comment. I totally agree with you? Do you have any other ideas on how to encourage students to solve interesting problems?