Weekend Journal — Continuing Education And The Role of College

This week we’ve been inadvertantly talking about education on Engineer Blogs. It’s a large gap to cross from student to engineer, one that many people say you can never truly cross over, due to the demands of an engineering job. But in the midst of this debate, we’ve hit upon a little bit of controversy, which I’d like to analyze (hey, I’m an engineer!). If you’d like some context, feel free to read Miss MSE’s initial article about  story telling, GEARS insistence that the humanities majors are asked to take STEM classes and Sam’s followup about things he’s learned since school.

I’ve now written about 1000 words on this subject, taking both sides of the debate, none of which you’ll be seeing. I’m really torn and I tried taking comments to heart from people on Twitter and the comments sections of those other articles. The question is whether an education should be well rounded or specialized. How the hell should I know? So I did what most others who went to college around my time learned to do: I Googled it. Typing in “well rounded education” brought up a pretty brilliant search result (another win for Google!). There was a paper from the American Association of College and Univeristies studying the need for well rounded education in a “Flat World”, as the term was defined by Tom Friedman. Putting aside the modernity of the argument, they delve into the larger argument about specializing in school vs a “liberal arts” or “well rounded” education.

  • On the side of specialized — There is a compelling argument that college is a service industry (“as in serve us!”, as Lewis Black brilliantly proclaims in one of my favorite and what I feel is one of the most under-rated college movies out there, Accepted). With the rising costs of tuition, there is an obvious and expected, “Get in, get what I need, get out” kind of vibe. This would require that the student know precisely what they want to do when they enter the program, such as saying, “I definitely want to be an electrical engineer,” or “I definitely want to be a nurse.” And in those cases, it works, right?
  • On the side of “well rounded” — This takes the tact of assuming that no student knows what they want to do with their life and that everyone should be exposed to as broad a spectrum of education as possible. This would obviously result in a graduating populace of students that have been able to see, touch and feel as much education as they need to decide what portion of the economy they want to contribute to.

That is a well written paper and if you’re interested in the subject, I highly recommend taking the time and reading more about it; it covers both sides quite well, though it ultimately comes down on the side of “well rounded”. It speaks to the education of the future, where the true measure of success is not how well you succeed when compared to the person in the cube next to you; instead, you’re being compared to the hordes of workers that can be hired for the same price and often times with more rigorous education for you. The idea being that it’s the “right-brained” and “creative” parts of me that will ultimately allow me to compete in a truly global marketplace.

However, if this really is the case and I’m not competing against Bob down the hall, but Miroslav and Miao from across the pond, then I would present a different argument: most things I’m taught in school will not matter towards competing with them, at least not the way school teaches them. Yes, the fundamentals are a good starting point for a career. But believe me, the more people I meet in the Maker community and elsewhere, the more examples I have of people that did not need to learn the fundamentals in a university classroom. In fact, sometimes I feel that is a hindrance (a source of countless other posts, I’m sure).

A recent story in the Wall Street Journal commiserates with the importance of well-roundedness towards creativity in the workplace and otherwise. Sure, some people will point to that and say, “Well that settles it, you need to be well rounded so you need to take a history class in college!”. This is where I diverge in thinking though and begin to get frustrated. I’ve never met someone who said their sitting in a Roman history class helped them develop the next mobile phone chipset. Nor a French Class for characterizing a new MEMS device in the lab. I would even more vehemently deny that someone forced to take some of these classes in the name of “well-roundedness” will effectively be able to apply lessons in a far flung field to their main subject of study (I likely will continue using electronics as an example).

In the aforementioned paper, they cite Steve Jobs as taking typography classes and the co-founders of Google looking at paper citings. These are great examples of the cross-discipline approach that can really provide breakthroughs. But what they don’t state in there is that these founders would have been seeking out this knowledge regardless of what they worked on, because they were/are passionate learners. They were learning not because it was part of their curriculum (Steve wasn’t even a student at the time IIRC), but because they wanted to. I think passionate learning is the key to ultimate creative success. There are examples of non-classroom types and classroom types, all with various levels of success.

Here’s the real thing about all of this: I viewed education as ending in college. It should be starting in college. Really it should be kicking off in a bigger way and not necessarily in your own field. Sure, you will need to learn the tricks of your trade and discern the best practices from your co-workers. But even those, you will eventually have down enough to be somewhat successful; not the top of your field. To really come up with innovative solutions, you need expertise and context. Expertise will only come with time. And if that’s the case, you likely will not be in school at the time. And if you’re not in school at the time, you’d better be exposing your mind to different fields and methodologies so you don’t get in a rut of thinking, having your peers nodding their heads in agreement.

In my own experiences, I truly began learning when I moved back to Cleveland to work at my last job. I was in a difficult situation and learning more about sensitive electronics everyday. The expertise was gained painfully over the course of years (and even then, I would argue it could have used some work). But the expansion of my learning finally kicked in when I decided to start blogging about electronics in 2008 (after a futile attempt at thinking I would make money blogging in 2007). Me taking on learning about electronics and writing simulatneously exposed me to new methodologies, thought processes and people, all of which helped me be a better electrical engineer during the day. It was not until 2 years after graduating from college that I truly began learning and continue to do so today (I’m currently working on a hobby project in a non-related field of electronics in order to expand my skillset). My only regret is that my continuing education did not start during my classical education.

What are your stories of continuing education? Did you find that your schooling is enough to carry you through your job? Do you find yourself branching into other fields in order to expand your mind and experiences? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to un_photo for the picture.

5 responses to “Weekend Journal — Continuing Education And The Role of College”

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps

    Continuing education happens all the time. This is one of the joys of being a university professor—I can attend research seminars any time I can squeeze them in, and I can audit courses also. I also keep learning just to be able to teach my courses in a quickly changing field.

    I’ve not audited a course in a while (I used to try to audit one course a year), but I’ve been teaching myself stuff. For example, this summer I taught myself how to do PC board design using Eagle (just fairly simple 2-layer boards, but good enough to make sensor boards and motor controller boards for the robotics club I coach). I’m currently teaching myself, my son, and one other home-schooled high-schooler calculus-based physics, which I managed to avoid as math major and computer science grad student.

    Though none of the engineers reading this blog are likely to be in a position of needing to learn physics, they may find a need to teach it. I’ve been having a pretty good time with the Matter and Interactions textbook, which uses computational modeling to avoid having to simplify out all the interesting stuff. (More on my blog, under the physics tag: http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/tag/physics/

  2. Glen Cooper

    Great topic. I am a structural engineer, so rely upon my knowledge of heavily simplified physics formulae to ply my trade/profession.

    Continued learning is incredibly important to us all. All graduates reach the workplace with only the basics, and a few design examples to carry them into their first few months of their work placement [if they are lucky].

    Because of this, it is hard to employ them without experience. For grads, it is like the chicken and egg story being told on ground hog day….

    SO! I am trying hard to inject a bit of passion into the way we tackle this – from a business point of view.

    [STEP 1] My first step is to invite engineers to collaborate in a very small way. Pledge a few quid/dollars to a cool idea. You pledge enough, you receive a cool toy. Simple.

    [STEP 2] … please ask me if you wish to know more.

  3. Charles J Gervasi

    I don’t know either to what extent formal education should be general or geared toward specific marketable job functions. It seems to me like you really need both.

    The biggest thing IMHO is to be mindful about education purchases. It seems like when I was going to college there was an idea that education was just so important that no matter what you paid for it you simply couldn’t go wrong. My high school had the attitude “we can get you in to a famous school, and that is everything there is to life,” and students and parents bought it. People should approach it from an attitude of what can this school really do for me. It should be the attitude you have in a department store when someone walks up and says “how can I help you?” You should be cautious that they’re trying to sell you something. Maybe they have something you want to buy. That’s fine. If they have that attitude that you’re lucky even to be in the store and you buy into it, you will get ripped off.

  4. Ashley

    I am always looking for new classes to enhance my knowledge and that thirst for knowledge has transcended to classes I enroll my kids in. As a parent, I’ve already begun supplementing my children’s education with after school programs and now that they’re old enough, the ever so popular summer camp. Actually, this summer I’m sending my kids to the National Flight Academy in Pensacola, Florida (www.nationalflightacademy.com), which combines STEM Education and Flight Simulators in their week-long camp.

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