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Broadening the Path to Engineering

Mar 12, 2014   |   by Vicki May   |   The Huffington Post

William Kamkwamba built a working windmill largely of parts from a junkyard. Growing up in poverty in Malawi, William's access to education was limited. But despite his lack of access to math and science classes, William was able to successfully generate electricity to light his family's home. William forged his own path to engineering and told the story of this journey in his book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

It's not just African poverty that makes Kamkwamba unusual—it's the absence of a standard math and science track, which is what we expect as the only route to engineering. Students in middle school and high school are told, "If you like math and science, then you should consider a career in engineering," like it's a clear "if," then formulation. But what about the students who don't love math and science? Or the ones like William, who don't have the opportunity to take lots of math and science courses? Or those who love tinkering or building things but haven't yet fallen in love with problem sets? Does that mean engineering is not for them? What about the students who love art and sculpture? Is that really so far from engineering that they shouldn't consider it as a career?

While I agree that math and science are important tools for engineers and a way for us to attract many students to engineering (in fact, my love for math is what drew me to engineering), I can't help but wonder how many students we are losing along this narrow path; students with weak backgrounds in math and science (from developing countries or poor communities), or students who simply don't find math and science classes interesting and thus dismiss engineering as a career.

In a seminal study conducted in 1997, Seymour and Hewitt found that one of the main reasons students left engineering was because they lost interest in math and science or found that other majors were more interesting. You're probably thinking if they don't like math and science, they won't like engineering. But is that true? Engineering is the application of science and math (plus the application of lots of other knowledge). Engineering, as a discipline, is not synonymous with science and math, which tend to be abstract and theoretical. Cognitive psychologists have found that some students prefer applying knowledge, while others prefer theoretical and abstract concepts.

Are we engineers weeding out certain populations who would excel at applying knowledge but who lose interest in the more theoretical math and science courses? These students may still have to take those courses in order to become engineers—but we need to get the message to them that even if they don't love math and science for math and science's sake they may love applying math and science to designing and problem-solving; thus, they may love engineering.

Engineering is a mix of theory and practice but the current system seems to favor theory over practice, and those with access to math and science over those without access. Many students have difficulty with abstract concepts presented in math and science courses, especially when their background in these subjects is weak. It's easy to see why they might lose interest.

K-12 schools seem to believe that engineering design may be the key to increasing interest and improving learning in math and science. The Next Generation Science Standards, which have recently been published and are being adopted by many states, encourage incorporating engineering into K-12 education as a way to connect the relevance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to everyday life. I'm hopeful that exposing K-12 students to engineering earlier will result in more interest in engineering (and math and science) in the years to come.

We need to generate interest among students who like math and science but also among students who love art and tinkering and music and helping people and many other things. Engineering is so much broader than math and science. It is building. Creating. Connecting. Helping. William Kamkwamba found a path to engineering through building and a desire to provide electricity for his family. We need to commit to helping more kids like William find a path to engineering.

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