The Scary Time Saving Black Boxes

The year was 2002 and I was a gangly 13 year old boy fidgeting in my seat at the back of an Algebra class.  I was being taught how to calculate minimum and maximum points along a quadratic curve.  I listened for the period wrote down the homework problems for the next day and then moved on to the next class at the bell.

That night as I tried to do my HW I quickly realized that the lesson did not stick and I was lost.  I asked my dad for help and he wanted to know if I could graph the functions so I could see what I was trying to find.   As I pulled out my TI-83 I said “Yah sure but I need to know the coordinates of that point”.  While I was navigating the 2” x 3” screen he pointed to something, said “I bet that could help you”, and walked away.

We had just discovered the Max/Min function on the TI-83 and I proceeded to use my calculator to answer every question on the homework in less than 5 minutes.  I had opened up an extra hour that day for exploration and adventures and I quickly set off to add a new section of wall to my latest and greatest fort.  By discovering the time saving potential of my TI-83 I was able to redirect my efforts to a new learning experience.  One I was intrinsically motivated to teach myself.

10 years later and after 5 years of engineering instruction I now understand why my teacher gave me almost no credit for the assignment.  He wanted to see my work.  My response was “I don’t have any.  My calculator did the work”.  While I can see the “importance” of showing my work and can now even see the fundamental lessons that I was being taught by those tedious hand calculations.  At the time I wanted to know why I was penalized for finding a more efficient way to solve the problems I had been assigned.

The teacher wanted to ensure that I understood how the calculator was getting to that answer.  The teacher placed a large emphasis on the basics and by showing my work and learning these basics I can now see that I built a foundation upon which to add more complex problems and calculations.  However as things get more and more complex at what point are we no longer able to understand all the inner workings of the black boxes that we use every day?  I am currently typing on a device which to me still represents a large black box.  I feel confident that I could understand most of its inner workings IF I wanted to commit the time to it.  But that’s JUST IT I have decided that it is not a good use of my time to understand the inner workings of everything my computer does for me.  I have made the conscious decision to spend that time learning something else.

Do you still wash dishes by hand?  The dishwashing expert estimates that a standard family of 5 who eats 14 meals at home each week saves on average 4.95 hours by using a dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand.  True TI-83’s and dishwashers have totally different applications but they are both time saving devices and time saved is time that can be used elsewhere?  Why is the skill of washing dishes by hand no longer of paramount importance?  That’s up to you to answer.  Dr. David Knezevic just gave a talk on “Changing the way engineers work”.  He alluded to a set of tools that have huge time saving potential for engineers working in industry.

One category of those tools are apps for engineers and I was excited when I heard that you can now download something on your smart phone that can perform almost every calculation that I was asked to do in Mechanical Design 1.  This would have definitely saved time but at what cost?  Do those fundamental principles deserve as much emphasis as they are getting or could these concepts  be conveyed in a way that captures their essence but opens up time for exploration elsewhere in the curriculum?

I don’t have an answer.  Instead I encourage everyone in the teaching profession to be wary of trusting the black box 100%, while being conscious of the potential positives of time saving technology.  I wonder if the near future will see a shift take place where tedious hand calculations in the “Basic” courses become as important as being an efficient human dishwasher.  Imagine the “Time savings” and else could you spend that time teaching a “Student”?

Training an Engineer

I have recently earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering degree from Virginia Tech.  Our department is one of the best in the country and I am contemplative of my experience over the past 5 years and the impacts and effects that this degree has had on me.  How has it impacted how I problem solve? How has it impacted how I view the world? And are these changes due to the requirements of the curriculum or the opportunities on beyond the curriculum that I chose to take advantage of?

I ask these questions because in the discussion about reforming the education system of this country there is a lot of focus on engineering education and how to best prepare engineers for the dynamic and fast paced world that they are entering upon graduation.  There is talk about creativity, and generating intrinsic motivation.  There is talk about the top traits that companies want to see in engineers and what should engineering institutions be focusing on when teaching an engineer.   There are rumors that our centralized system of education is not the most effective and is in need of a radical overhaul.

I spoke with a recruiting agent from Ford Motor Company several weeks back and was struck by her answer to my question “What trait do you most want to see in a prospective engineer when going through the hiring process at Ford?”.  I was expecting to hear that they were looking for creative engineers that could think on their feet and generate unique solutions to problems that the plant faced.  Perhaps I expected to hear that it was important to have demonstrated leadership skills during your undergraduate degree and have the ability to be a good team player.  Instead the answer I was given was simple “We are looking for someone who has the technical skills required for the position we are trying to fill.  The rest we can teach them on the job”.  She shared with me that while leadership experience and creativity were important it was more important that the engineer they hire have the technical know-how to solve the challenges expected in the position they are filling.  She mentioned that leadership skills and other less tangible skill sets will quickly make themselves apparent during the first few years on the job.  If they exist then the candidate would be considered for promotion.

This reminded me that while we can romanticize the image of the “engineer” as a problem solver of the continuously striving against the grand challenges it may be more accurate or common to refer to the position as a highly specialized technical trade.  A welder has the technical skill to permanently attach two pieces of metal.  An engineer has the technical skill to apply problem solving skills to his area of expertise and uncover the root cause of an issue.

Is there a disjunction between what academia is trying to create and what industry needs? Perhaps.  Looking back at my time at Tech I can categorize everything I did into two catagories; course work, and extracurricular activities.  When I talk with recruiters about things I learned, experiences I had, and skills acquired I mostly speak about what I did beyond my coursework.  The classes were the foundation, the technical skills I needed to be certified as an engineer who can plug a specialized hole in a process or system.  The most valuable experiences during my undergraduate degree were getting the chances to apply my skills on real world problems.  I got involved in these problems through Clubs and organizations, Co-op’s, Study Abroad experiences, and Undergraduate Research.  I wonder how much different my experience in these areas would have been if I had been required to do them?  How would that have transformed the attitudes that people bring to those projects and would it have negatively affected them?  I fear it might have.  Perhaps you’re an engineer and have similar or completely contrary feelings towards your experience.  Either way I would love to hear them.

Screen Time

Right now I sit in front of my computer screen.  I sit and I attempt to capture in the English language my thoughts and musings.  The attempt is not perfect.  I will not capture the pure essence of what is circling in my mind but the attempt to reach that perfection is valuable.  While it is valuable to strive for that perfection it is arguably more important to never let the fear of never reaching this “ideal” state stop or even slow my attempts.  Learning is a process, an experience, and without failure in these attempts I wonder if any of us can really “Learn”.

This attempt, this learning experience is one that is structured by the tools I am learning with.  I write in English, I type on my laptop, my prose is projected in pixels,  I can use spell check and could instantly lookup something I am curious on the pervasive internet should I be so moved during the middle of this learning experience.

I wonder at how the tools we use structure our learning and how aware we are of that fact during the learning experiences?  I am not interested in making a claim that any one method is better than the other but fascinated by the variety of experiences one could have in capturing thoughts through the written language.

Is your attempt full of the continuous edits and automatic spell checks that are the norm for typing or are your errors in an attempt toward perfection captured by the permanence of pen and paper?  Chalk on Slate, Marker on Whiteboard, Pencil on a 2×4, crayon on a cereal box, paint on parchment, charcoal on sandstone,  the options for transcribing something are endless and each and every one will offer a different tactile, sensory experience.  Each and every one has its own strengths and weaknesses and is best suited for a particular environment.  They are all important and they all affect the process of capturing your thoughts in a slightly different way.  In an attempt to reach perfection there are more options than this screen that I sit in front of and it is important that we try as many as we can while we can.  The screen is gaining popularity and is becoming pervasive.