November 19, 2011

"Science is Hard" and Occupy Wall Street

There was an article in the New York Times last week that was forwarded to me by several people.     The article's title is "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)".  My first impression was "this is news?".  My second thought was "I've seen this before" and finally remembered that this theme was in The Onion about nine years ago (link here).  

But sarcasm and parody aside, the article first made the point that science and engineering are hard and then went on to discuss the potential of more effective and engaging methods of teaching.  Why is this considered news when the point at first glance seems obvious.  But then I sat back and thought a little, and realized that the fact STEM education needs reform both is and isn't news to most people.  And this contradiction or confusion is perfectly understandable if you consider not just what makes the news, but how the news is generated.

For years an underlying assumption of this country has been our technological, scientific, and moral superiority.  This assumption drives our foundational narratives, and contribute to our cultural identity.  In an era of where the corporate news media is required to turn out stories rapidly and continuously, it is my perception that the media increasingly bases stories on these foundational narratives.  Given the rapid news cycle, there is less time to reflect on and challenge these narratives and thus they are often reinforced among the great majority of the American populace that are not experts in a given discipline.  Since cultural narratives likely play a major role in identity, challenging these narratives opens one to disbelief and criticism, much of which can be irrational.

If one looks at the Times article there are two other related foundational narratives that crop up in the first two paragraphs:  that the US is falling behind other countries, and the "Sputnik Moment" story.  These narratives are, of course, related.

The "falling behind" narrative is used to underscore or highlight news and relate it to basic human fears.  The fear that the end is near, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the other, and the fear of death.  In this narrative there is an "other" out there that is gaining on us, and if it catches or surpasses us we can expect the future to be worse than the present.  All our hard work will have gone for naught.  In the last fifty years this "other" was first the USSR, then Japan, and now is China/India.

The "Sputnik Moment" is our story of how we overcome this threat.  A pivotal event somehow transforms the country.  A cadre of scientific heroes rise up from the mass of ordinary Americans and through their superior intellect transform society and save us from the "other".

Both these foundational narratives are not new, and form the basis for human storytelling throughout much of history.  But the stereotypes and resultant actions triggered by these narratives can be dangerous if the narratives go unchallenged precisely because they are so deeply rooted in what it means to be human.  Two questions immediately come to mind.  First, is the "other" really a threat?  Second, are there really "heroes" among us that can rise up and save us?  The first question is one that is often asked; I don't really have anything to add to this discussion.  The interesting and most important question, I feel, is the second one...

The importance of the question of whether we can have "heroes", which I believe today are called "entrepreneurs" or "innovators", struck me today when I was down at Occupy DC today with my son and saw this sign:
"I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that.  
Then I realized, I AM SOMEBODY"

The foundational narrative of a Sputnik moment is that critical events result in heroes rising up.  Such moments create heroes.  But we live in a society that suppresses Sputnik moments since they both threaten our narrative of superiority and result in changes to the status quo.  Engineering educators would love to see the engineer as hero again, but this will not happen.  If we wait for heroes we must wait a long time.  We live in an age of cooperative ventures, teams, large systems, and complex problems.  Sputnik created this age, and we must live with its consequences.  And as the protest sign above indicates, we must now all be heroes.

The foundational narrative of the scientist hero sparked the wide-spread belief that science (and by incorrect association engineering) is hard, the domain of a few "super-brains".  Phrases like "It's not rocket science" for what is perceived to be simple imply that rocket science is hard, it is not accessible to everyone.  How much damage has this narrative done to our country?

And perhaps this is the hidden message in the Times article.  Students seek to construct their own narratives where they are heroes or heroines.  As we seek to make engineering rigorous, we deconstruct their narratives; they can no longer maintain the myth we ourselves have created for them.  So they leave.  And the myth perpetuates... 

September 4, 2011

Tolkienesque thoughts on the Internet

I have been reading a long, but quite interesting article by Jason Lanier, who has been involved for years in the development of the internet, but whom I had never heard of previously.  While being critical of the internet,  the article is not a diatribe or "rant" but rather a well-reasoned article that sees the advantages and disadvantages of global networks in general.  In his article, "Local-Global Flip", Lanier makes myriad points--peppered liberally with examples-- two of which are, I believe, critical to understand the highly networked world we have found ourselves in after one short generation, as well as provide guideposts to the evolving world of engineering education.

The first of these points is that those of us who use the internet are not consumers, rather we are the product.  This is particularly true if we take advantage of "free" software and services.  This is rather obvious; as Heinlein said so long ago (and it was old then) TANSTAAFL ("There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch").  It costs money, real money, to buy and maintain the servers and associated technology, and pay the smart people to develop all this cool stuff.  Google (and other internet companies) make money on this by collecting, analyzing, and selling information about you.  Since I am writing this blog on Blogspot, I too am participating in this model!

The second point Lanier makes is that there are unforeseen and unintended consequences to any technology we choose to adopt.  The term used in intelligence and policy circles for unforeseen consequences is "blowback".  The theme of unforeseen consequences has long resonated with me personally; perhaps from reading Tolkien at a young age:
"Alas for Saruman!  It was his downfall as I now perceive.  Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves."  (The Two Towers, ch. 11)
Engineers (and by association technologists) suffer from Saruman's sin of hubris.  The hubris of the "network" is that none of us fully understand it, and few even understand it in enough detail to recreate it.  And that is just the technology, the social and economic consequences are even less known or perhaps even knowable.  As an example Cindy Atman's (and colleagues') work on what engineering students learn found that knowledge of the larger context surrounding the engineering students learn is nearly absent when they graduate.

These two points are related.  The consequences of the internet and the data-enabled networks engendered by it have, in Lanier's opinion, impoverished the populations they were designed to serve.  We create knowledge and give it away for free in exchange for social recognition while those who control the network gain wealth and power.  Lanier sees this as the "local-global" flip; as networks get too global they create local conditions that undermine their own success.  Lanier points out that this flip is the likely, but not inevitable, consequence of creating large networks which simply arise from the fact that those that accumulate power have the failing of being human. 

But enough summary, I can't do this article justice in a blog post. What, you may ask, does this have to do with engineering education?  If Lanier's conclusions are right it means we need to be very careful with new conceptions of universities that focus on putting more content on-line.  By making information widely available, we eventually undermine the role of faculty since we have always been knowledge workers.  The focus on research, on knowledge creation, does help define a valuable role for faculty, but does not address education.  It is too bad Lanier's article doesn't focus on his third way, the "middle path" between the extremes he defines of Marxism and "The Matrix" for we surely need to find better way forward.

August 26, 2011

Putting our collective heads in the cloud

About a month ago I read an interesting opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled How to Save the Traditional University, From the Inside Out by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring.  Any article that threatens to save us from ourselves should be viewed with caution, or as Thoreau so wisely said:  "If I know for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life...for fear that I should get some of his good done to me..."  However some of the advice in this article seems quite apropos to the current climate in which universities find themselves.

The article points out that universities still have a valuable role to play in society in conducting basic research, to "serve as conservators and promulgators of our cultural memories", and to allow mentoring for the rising generation.  While I personally object to the term mentor, given that the actual role of Mentor was to put the brakes on Telemachus, all these are valuable roles that the university plays in society.  However they caution about many of the same issues I am so passionate about in this blog- the increasing social injustice that comes with the cost of higher education.  But beyond bitching about the problem, they have made some very reasonable suggestions to address it.

The most important, I believe defining, point of the article is that these issues have to be addressed inside the academy.  This is absolutely true!  The pressures on higher education are external, but these pressures are being felt across all aspects of society and, as the title of this blog alludes to, we are very short short of money so we must begin to think our way out of the mess we find ourselves in.  The article makes several reasonable suggestions that outline a path forwards:
  • Intelligently combine distance or asynchronous learning opportunities engendered by technology with face-to-face interaction and mentoring.
  • Focus on each institutions strengths and be willing to cut programs and classes that don't contribute to that strength including low-enrollment graduate classes.
  • Focus on enabling students to graduate in four years.
Or as the article succinctly states the university needs to clearly identify "the students it serves, the subjects it offers, and the scholarship it performs."

These are all great ideas, but I don't think the authors go far enough.  It is not enough for a university to simply cut back to self-identified strengths.  It also needs to partner with other schools (that don't have the luxury of multi-billion dollar endowments like Harvard) to offer a complete range of services.  Think of this if you will like a "cloud" model of higher education.  One of the images I present when I give talks is shown below:
Pretty much every faculty member in the audience gets this right away.  My next question to the audience is more subtle:  "What sat on the shelf next to every one of these computers?".  I get a variety of answers, but a correct one  that makes my point is "a shelf full of floppy disks".  The point is that in the dawn of the computer age, say fifteen years ago, you had to have a physical copy of every piece of software you wanted to run and every piece of data you wished to analyze.  Now of course much of this resides elsewhere, in "the cloud".

This cloud model is a good one for universities, particularly given the current financial straits we will likely be in for a long time.  Does every university need every engineering department, what about a business school, or a registrar.  Consuming services to maintain a broad spectrum of educational opportunities makes a lot of economic sense, particularly given that this model would allow a university to market its strengths to others and both monetize its services and gain status.

May 17, 2011

I owe, I owe, its off to work I go...Is College Worth It?

I saw a link to the College Loan Debt Clock which in turn led me to the New York Times article linked in this post's title.  It seems that for the first time in (recent?) history in this country the total debt that individuals accumulate to go to college has exceeded credit card debt.  According to data from the Times article, credit card debt rose from $600 billion in 2000 and topped out at nearly $1 trillion about 2008 and has since fallen to just over $800 billion.  Student loan debt on the other hand was less than $200 billion in 2000, and has risen steadily to over $800 billion today, a jump of more than a factor of four in one decade.  To provide another perspective not the the Times article, the total US mortgage debt roughly doubled from $6.5 trillion to over $14 trillion over this time period.

This trend is very clearly shown in the just released report from the Pew  Research Center "Is College Worth It?".  This very informative report seeks to provide data on the costs of college from two polar perspectives- the American public and college presidents.  The report is a wealth of information on the actual costs of college and the public perception of same.

Interestingly the ratio between the earnings of young people with college educations and those without peaked in the early 1990's and has stayed flat since the early 1990's...
...while the inflation adjusted (to CPI) costs of college are climbing steadily.
It seems that this trend is not sustainable broadly although looking at this data on a very large national scale likely hides other trends for particular majors or employment categories.  It is not surprising given these trends that college debt is increasing.

The Pew report spends a good deal of time looking at the question of debt.  It is clear from data in the report that the costs of college track almost linearly with the total debt owed for college.  The New York Times article quotes several economists who classify both home mortgages and student loans as "good debt" and credit card debt as "bad debt" since both homes and a college education have long term value.  However as the two figures above seem to indicate, that while this is true now, if costs keep rising and the wage differential stays flat this will eventually be an historical assumption and not reflect reality.  In fact as the Pew report hints at, this is already the reality for large sections of our society that are traditionally under-served by higher education.  The three top reasons for not attending college are, at their root, all financial.

The Pew report also tracks a steady downward trend of the public's belief that college is affordable or a good value for the money.  College presidents, on the other hand, tend to be more optimistic about college, but 57% say that most people can't afford college.  A surprisingly large percentage of college presidents believe that the US higher education system is not the world's best or heading in the right direction.  Interestingly the more selective the college, the more the belief that it is affordable and the US higher education system is the world's best.  I guess, on reflection this isn't so surprising since we all tend to see things from our local perspectives and why should presidents of elite colleges not be biased by the view from their offices?  Although the differences between selective and non-selective institutions are not huge, this is a worrisome data point since it is the more elite schools that tend to drive change in higher education.

The Pew report does break down earnings by degree using a "synthetic work -life earning estimate" by which they mean how much a degree holder earns if future wage trends mirror historical data.  The figure below shows lifetime earnings of bachelor (or higher) degree holders in millions of dollars.

Engineers do well, even compared to science and medicine.  The report splits engineering BS degree holder from MS degree holders and finds a lifetime earnings of $1.7M for the BS degree recipients and $2.1M for MS degree holders, showing the extra investment in an engineering master's degree is well worthwhile, at least for the population at large.  To compare the low person on the totem pole, education, the lifetime earning differential between a high school diploma holder and a Bachelors in education is only $80,000!  Clearly major matters.

April 22, 2011

More on popping bubbles

Two articles caught my attention in the last week.  One, published in the highly respected journal Nature is a criticism of the current system of education at the PhD level.  The second article is on the TechCrunch web site and looks at entrepreneur Peter Thiel who sees a rapidly inflating bubble in higher education.

Both articles have at their core the worry that we all share about the economy and our childrens' prospects of future prosperity.  Both articles also share the point of view that education in not a panacea for society's woes, as is often assumed by policy makers. 

The Nature opinion piece draws its conclusions from a study published in the same issue that looks at the prospects of PhD graduates in several countries around the world.  The basic conclusion of this study that there are wide variations in the prospects of PhD students depending on the economic growth of the country, but in most cases there are not and will not be enough academic jobs.  The author of opinion piece, Mark Taylor, paints the picture as more of a social justice issue with universities and faculty complicit in continuing a system of indentured servitude for doctoral students despite the slim prospects of getting a job.  This isn't a new conclusion.  I got my own Ph.D. around the time of the big downturn in Ph.D. employment in the early 1990's and the internal joke among Rice graduate students played off of the recruiting slogan of the Army at that time:  "It's not just a job, it's and indenture".

Regardless of whether you agree with the opinions stated in Dr. Tayor's article or not, it seems clear that the increased supply of doctoral degrees helped along by universities needing to grow programs, in combination with the decreased demand for PhD scientists and engineers mimics the conditions of an economic bubble.

The other article comments on activities of billionaire Peter Thiel who very much believes the entire higher education system is in the midst of a bubble similar to the internet bubble of ten years ago.  The article points out the current rethinking of the value--i.e. benefit to cost ratio--of higher education:  "...the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligensia."

One of the interesting points made by Mr. Thiel is given in this quote (emphasis mine): 
If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?  It’s something about the scarcity and the status. In education your value depends on other people failing. Whenever Darwinism is invoked it’s usually a justification for doing something mean. It’s a way to ignore that people are falling through the cracks, because you pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine. Maybe that’s not true.
He hits the nail right on the head in my opinion with the comment on status.  Universities seek status the way moths seek candle flames and redneck junkies seek methamphetamine.  The massive recent investment in higher education is, in many ways, funding status increases for institutions.  There are definitely positive benefits from this investment, but in many cases the investments are only moderately successful because they are driven by the wrong reasons (institutional status).

Peter Thiel is seeking to attract twenty undergraduate students away from degree completion by offering them $100,000 over two years to leave school and start their own business.  Obviously this is a publicity ploy to demonstrate his point, but as the article points out, we aren't really serious yet about education.  Perhaps some high profile attempts to poke holes in the myths and mystery surrounding academia will be healthy for the nation.

January 29, 2011

A cool new tool, thanks to Google

I saw a link to a new tool Google published with very little fanfare a month ago.  This tool allows word counts of over 5.2 million books stretching back centuries.  The tool returns graphs of the fraction of how often in a given year the word that you search for is found in scanned Google books. Obviously the results returned are going to be dependent on the types of books Google scanned and how accurate the database is, but with millions of books scanned, one can assume it is a good sampling.  There is a more complete report of how the tool works in a very recent article in Science.  However without going into great depth there are several very interesting (and fun) questions that this tool can provide insight on quickly and easily.

For example we in engineering education are rightly focused on the importance of our discipline.  How does the rest of the English speaking, book publishing world perceive engineering in a historical context?  It is easy to search for the word "engineer" and compare our importance to several other professions.
Figure 1:  Relative frequency of selected professions for two centuries

Several interesting trends jump out from this data.  Engineer is in the literature database more than scientist, which is somewhat surprising given our perception of engineering as being less visible than science at the K-12 levels and in parents' minds.  Also both "engineer" and "scientist" have declined recently compared to the two other professions of "doctor" and "lawyer".  Note that the words "mathematician" and "technician" are barely on the map.  Is this decline an artifact of the dataset?  It is simple enough to run a search for very common words:
Figure 2: Relative frequency of very common words
While there have been slight declines in some words,they don't correlate temporally well with the decline of "engineer" or "scientist".

Going back to Figure 1, there are some interesting bumps in the frequency of the word "engineer" that don't appear in scientist.  Historically these seem to correspond to major military conflicts (Civil War, WW I, WW II).  The figure below highlights this by comparing "engineer" to two other militaristic words:  "soldier" and "pilot".  There is definitely a stronger spike for the more militaristic words, but clearly the data shows the relationship of engineers to military conflicts.
Figure 3:  Correlation of "engineer" with military conflicts

Interestingly enough in the recent "War on Terror" period post 2000, there has not been a connection with engineers, at least in the books scanned by Google.

Is the decline of the word engineer associated with all the most common disciplines of engineering, or just a few?  The figure below shows the results of a search for "_____ engineer" over the last century where the blank is the particular discipline shown.
Figure 4:  Frequency of five different disciplines of engineering
A search for "_____ engineering" turns up very similar results.  It is interesting that all branches of engineering show a decline, and all but industrial engineering peaked in the late 1980's, about the time the number of engineering students in the US peaked according to NSF's Science & Engineering Statistics data.  It is also interesting to note the correlation, or lack there-of, of different disciplines and military conflicts.

The last meaningful search I did in NGrams was for STEM education, in particular comparing "engineering education" with "science education" over the last century.  This is shown below.
Figure 5:  Comparison of two types of STEM education
To me it interesting to see the meteoric rise of "science education" about the time you would expect following the Second World War.  Perhaps the decline had to do with the political and social movements near the end of the Vietnam War?  Although interestingly enough while "science education" is written about much more, "engineering education" has been on a steady decline since about 1980, when "science education" started its largest period of growth.

Are these just numerical coincidences, does the set of books from which this data is drawn accurately reflect public interest, knowledge, or perception?  I neither have the scholarly background nor time time to delve into this issue in a truly scientific manner.  However I do believe that this data qualitatively reflects trends in public perception and attention.  If this is true, and that is a big "if", then engineering seems to be on a long downward slide.  This data suggests the critical importance of explaining what we do, publicizing our impact, and attempting to become more visible.  The National Academy of Engineering's Changing the Conversation initiative is a good first step.