By CHRIS FOX, Associate Editor, Product Design & Development (PD&D)
After spending four days at the FIRST Championship, surrounded by hoards of kids that have a better understanding of circuit boards, servo motors and serial communication than I could ever hope, it is clear where my high school education fell short.
In high school, I was a science geek with a positive affliction towards math (I was good at it, but disliked it) and a knack for taking things apart. To top it off, I hated English class and writing. The irony is clear; that I embraced my hatred to become an associate editor for a superb engineering publication. But, the unfortunate circumstance was the lack of pursuance into engineering.
FIRST highlights my missed potential through the hands of bright students building bad-ass robots. Many kids enter the program without knowing how to operate a screwdriver, and they leave FIRST with a deep understanding of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, as well as computer-aided design (CAD) and entrepreneurial skills. The issue I’m driving at is: Why is this still an extra-curricular activity? Why do we cover math, biology, chemistry, physics and technical education (tech ed) as specific subjects in school, but there is never an engineering class?
It can be argued that engineering requires a cross section of too many disciplines to be taught as a single subject. This is flawed, as many subjects require cross-discipline work: physics and chemistry are prime examples.
I come back to my own experience as a case in point. In high school physics, chemistry and all subsections of math were offered, but the only remotely engineering-esque subject was tech ed. The problem with tech ed as a subject is the all-too-familiar lack of funding and/or teaching gusto. Tech ed at Cambridge High consisted of: an out-of-date, impossible-to-comprehend CAD program (which focused more on manufacturing than engineering); a makeshift plumbing puzzle (easily solvable, but valuable household information for later in life); and building a bird house out of a pre-fabricated kit.
These tech-ed classes lack the insight needed to realize what engineering truly is and can provide to a student. In fact, after one semester of such a class, the only students who remained were those good with their hands, future handymen. There is a negative stigma about tech ed that seems to drive away those who think when they tinker, and pushes them toward strictly scientific or mathematical fields.
This is fine. More kids in science is a huge step in the right direction, but this still leaves a serious gap between kids who could be engineers and kids who actually become engineers. How do we cross the gap from building a rudimentary bird house to designing complex robots on a team designed like a business?
Engineering should have its own place in school curricula. Beyond the obvious, engineering has a broad subject base with endless specificities that necessitate years of college work for a single field: Why not start kids out as early as possible?
This is the precise benefit of FIRST Robotics. With FIRST Lego League starting in elementary school, all the way up through high school with the FIRST Robotics Competition, this organization does everything it can to put the tools of engineering in the hands of today’s youth (both physically and intellectually).
Engineering is a discipline that will only grow more efficiently with transparency and sharing. Giving access to the youngest and most creative minds in our midst will only make our world more sustainable and enjoyable, giving kids the opportunity to realize a true understanding of how things work. As the world of FIRST Robotics stretches to more kids world-wide, the next step is to make the importance of engineering known within the grade-school classroom, rather than just after 3 p.m.
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