The STEM Trap


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There is something very wrong here. A detached and segregated educational system has caused a lack of proper academic preparation for some of our current, technically based industries. For example, the high-tech product assembly industry has gone through a transformation from labor-intensive to high-tech automated assembly processes. The people who inhabit the ivory tower have largely ignored this evolution. The exodus of jobs in the U.S. from these production operations that are staffed with ill-educated personnel has produced a flurry of anger and activity—a public drum beat to identify the cause and fix it. Previous Jumping off the Bandwagon columns have identified some popular misconceptions about what got us here that are currently en vogue—red herrings that distract from the core issue.

While these factors may contribute to the issue at hand, the root cause is our traditional educational system and production organizational structure. Post-secondary schools have not been responsive to the changing landscape of the modern electronic product assembly operation—they really can’t, considering the lack of real-world experience of most of the faculty. Regardless, we have tasked the perpetrator with solving the problems they have largely created! Learning for learning, which the perpetrator is best at, has totally dominated the educational system and learning for earning has been ignored for the most part.

Last month, we discussed the high-tech educational business. But instead of using the traditional caste system model with the faculty and administration considered in the upper stratum and the students as subservient, we turned things upside down. We posited a model that held the student as the customer, with the faculty and administration in a service provider role to their student-customers. 

What makes the post-secondary school/student relationship even more unique is how uneducated the customer is—in more ways than one. This is a customer that unlike the car-buying or restaurant-going customer, hasn’t a clue as to the value of the product they are paying for—an easy mark, easily taken advantage of without the proper checks and balances. In a free market economy with students subject to a system with the same basic educational objectives throughout, the value of that education is partially a matter of the competition that the student population will face in the real world. Within the confines of the U.S., for example, if all the competition resides within its borders and learning for earning is not a component of the university system, does it matter? Not much. But, how about on a global competing field that has different ideas about what a student’s education product should be? Where, perhaps, in other countries learning for earning takes on a greater importance in the post-secondary education world.

So, in our global economy it becomes important and appropriate that a college as a supplier establishes what the product is that they are selling to their naïve, dependent, uneducated customers. Is it solely a liberal education? This has been the primary objective since the Age of the Enlightenment. A college was to develop the student’s mind, creating an open and analytic template for thinking for themselves. Said another way the school was to foster an open mind not tied to the dogma of their parents, their church, their country, or for that matter, their school—developing critical thinking skills that permit problem solving and decision making in an objective way. Even in the most unbiased environment, isn’t this a difficult goal to achieve in the antiseptic Ivory Tower?

Based on the academic landscape that is on display today, do you think our university system in the U.S. even meets this objective? And, even if it does, is that enough? Is it time to reexamine the role school plays in grooming the youth to be valuable contributors for the society they will be entering? What about the learning for earning part? Does the education product produce a piece of paper that will get the student a good job upon graduation? Surely education for professions such as medicine, law, and yes, engineering, attempts to overlay biological, legal and physical sciences on top of a liberal education. However, do we continue to leave the specific technical skill set development part of a student’s education to industry, or “trade” schools? This historic aspect of a traditional engineering education becomes a convenient truth for college administrators when we realize that most engineering faculties don’t have a staff with these skills—whether it is running a milling machine or a pick and place machine. Should any engineering faculty consist of even one member that does not have real world experience to complement the skill to teach, and the analytic aptitude to grasp, the physics?

The opposite of these resume elements has historically been the case. Why?

Arrogance, hubris and self-defense continue to be front and center as we have locked ourselves into what we are good at—academic performance, not what would be most valuable to our students, our customers. Not understanding, or wanting to understand, the nature of today’s high tech electronic product design of assembly is another reason for having tolerated the status quo.

Whether the post-secondary educational system will admit it or not, the level of technological understanding to successfully compete in the high tech electronic global manufacturing marketplace has blurred the line between the trade skills and the engineering skills necessary for an original design provider (ODP) and electronic manufacturing services (EMS) provider. It is a hard transition for most general managers to substitute the traditional minimum wage assembly-line workers with a high priced engineer who can develop the automation to reduce the labor content of a product’s assembly and test, as well as run and service the line1. However, there are some companies that are beginning to see the economic sense this makes.

A favorite TV show of my impressionable youth was Rod Serling’s classic sci-fi series, “The Twilight Zone.” One particular episode stands out when I ponder the current state of high-tech electronic product design and assembly education. The episode was entitled “To Serve Man.” An alien civilization arrives on earth and wants to share all their advanced technology with us—medical, food production, space travel, energy, everything! An alien provides a large book written in his native language that is believed to be a roadmap to the alien’s largess. At first, translators are able only to decode the title, “To Serve Man.” As the effort to decode the text continues, the alien extends his advanced civilization’s spirit of goodwill by inviting thousands of volunteers to visit his planet. In one of the final scenes as the spaceship is being loaded with humans, a frantic translator rushes the boarding queue and screams: “We finished the translation! Don’t get on the ship! ‘To Serve Man’ is a cookbook!”

It is in the nature of many of us to think and hope for the best; give the benefit of the doubt; trust in the virtuous intentions of the “experts,” who we entrust with a portion of our welfare—whether it be the defense of our country, the safety of the food and water supply, the safety and efficacy of the medicines we ingest, or the education of our children. The cookbook provided by our educational system must be in the students’ best interest. Right?

That brings us to this month’s topic: The STEM Trap.

As you are probably aware, STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In the U.S., the term accelerated in usage as dismal K-12 student academic performance compared to other countries and the exodus of tech jobs offshore broke into the public consciousness. There was political hay to be had by addressing this issue. Government at the local, state and federal level, of course, got involved —rightly so in this case since they have the core responsibility for the compulsory primary and secondary educational systems. The National Science Foundation (NSF) established guidelines on what learning disciplines fell under the STEM banner. Spending money is what governments generally do in these situations to demonstrate their concern and just how serious and important they perceive the problem.

In 2006, President George W. Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative that increased federal funding for advanced R&D programs.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the July 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.

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