Purposeful learning in STEM

In my personal experience, undergraduate engineering at the institution where I earned my Bachelor’s was presented to the students to fulfill one key purpose: money. On one of the first days of my undergraduate studies, my Intro to Engineering professor said to us: “There is only one reason to pursue a career in Engineering: money. If you’re here for any reason other than to put some porkchops in the freezer, then you’re lying to yourself.” He asked students who disagreed to tell him why they thought they were in engineering and several of us said things like “I want to help people, I want to make a difference,” but each supposedly naive response was met with laughter, and frankly, a little mockery. This experience was so bizarre and to this day, I am so puzzled about what has happened in this man’s career that makes him think it was appropriate or productive or accurate to tell young, eager engineering students this. Fortunately, he was the only person I encountered in my studies who made such proclamations with such careless abandon, but the idea that money was our key driver in studying engineering was constantly present.

I found this lurking idea to be extremely damaging. It’s a large part of the reason I considered dropping out of engineering on several occasions: I wasn’t convinced I was doing something meaningful with my studies. How am I supposed to stay motivated for 4+ years of education, not to mention the rest of my life, simply for a nice paycheck? Sure, that paycheck can be a great motivator, but can’t I do something meaningful too? I think this idea that money is king led to a really poor quality of engagement on the part of myself and my peers in many of my classes. Who cares if you understand or care about the material as long as you learn just enough to get that degree and pass those liscensure tests?

This need for purpose is really well illustrated in Dan Pink’s video RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Purpose is so important for meaningful learning and career satisfaction. He talks about how there are 3 key things that govern our motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. He talks about how it can be beneficial for companies to have some sort of “transcendent purpose” for a number of reasons: it makes coming to work more enjoyable, it can prevent ethical issues from occurring, encourage better service and product development and so on. This makes a lot of sense in the context of education as well and I think in particular is a key part of STEM education that is often lacking.


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4 Responses to Purposeful learning in STEM

  1. ytaylor9

    I can totally see what you’re saying with the purpose often being lacking in STEM education. I often struggle with trying to connect the research I’m doing with the application in the real world and I’m even in a fairly applied field: Dairy Science. In our field the funding is typically spearheaded by what is beneficial to farmers, which is great to know that our work is helping others’ lives, but sometimes it feels as if the purpose behind the work we’re doing gets lost in that since it may not exactly be what we’re passionate about looking into. I’m sure this scenario plays out in many different fields where we have an idea we would love to look into, but the money isn’t necessarily available to us so we pretty much are forced to work on something else.

  2. Ken Black


    This dovetails very nicely into some of the other concerns that have been placed on assessment and other aspects for meaning in education and meaning in terms of a degree conferred at the end of a period of time.

    I have heard the story about the introduction story in engineering from a number of places both here at VT and in other locations. I can only hope that those particular professors are are the odd ones out. Yes, engineering is a very wealthy field and the money it receives can attract many people to the discipline. I have heard of opposite story in the arts that say if you are here to make money leave since there is none here.

    This is what makes autonomy, mastery, and purpose so critical to an individual’s success. Autonomy gives the individual the ability to choose a purpose and a line of inquiry, over time this leads to mastery of a topic or technique. With mastery we find certain kinds of synthesis and evaluation that is not present in simple understanding. This analysis then leads to the final part which is that thought with experience can lead to knowledge. The key as shown here is the next leap of faith that autonomy provides. The leap is experience and without authentic ones it can lead to partial or no mastery of a discipline.

  3. Jacob Metch

    This is so depressing… 🙁 I’m shocked that any professor would say something that bold and wrong to freshman engineering students. Like you said, what happened in his career to turn him into that.

    I also was in engineering and my experience was very different from what your saying here. A lot of my professors talked about applications in industry and really tailored their class for industrial application. This approach worked really well for everyone wanting to go into industry.

    I guess hopefully there will always be enough good engineering professors to out compete the bad ones for motivating students in the right way.

  4. This is a really well written article- thank you for posting something easy to read! I am working on my Ph.D. in the sciences, and have felt similar internal doubt many times through my collegiate career. However, I also think participation in higher education is a privilege and investment. At this point in our education, we are old enough to be accountable for our decision to pursue further education. We are aware of the significant amount of time and money required to earn various degrees, and it is up to us to muster the internal motivation to complete these degrees to the best of our abilities. This means valuing ourselves and our time enough to routinely question if the trajectory we chose is right for us.

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