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Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?

If you studied math, science, or engineering at a four-year college in the US, much of what you learned is useless, forgotten, or obsolete. All that money, all that time, all that wasted talent. If all we lost were a few years, no big deal. But the really scary part is that we never learned what matters most to true experts in math, science, and engineering. We never really learned how to DO math, science, and engineering.

Toward the end of his life, legendary mathematician Jacques Hadamard asked 100 of the top scientists of his time how they did whatever it was that they did (math, physics, etc.) Hadamard's survey found a massive disconnect between how we teach math and science and how mathematicians and scientists actually work. The majority of his contemporaries apparently claimed that using the logical, left-brain symbols associated with their work was NOT how they did their work. These were simply the tools they used to communicate it. What they used to do the works was much... fuzzier. Intuition. Visualization. Sensation (Einstein talked of a kinesthetic element). Anthropomorphizing. Metaphors.

We are in sooooo much trouble.

What experts use to do their work are the things we don't teach. We focus almost exclusively on how to talk about the work. Obviously this doesn't mean nobody learns to do it... we have plenty of expert engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, who become great either in spite of faulty teaching or because they lucked out and had excellent, clueful instructors and mentors. But we also hear more and more teachers, experts, and employers railing against the sorry state of our advanced technical educations today. The problem is, many of these same teachers, experts, and employers have a tough time articulating what's wrong, let alone how to fix it.

And what do we do to try and improve things? We just do MORE of what's wrong. We redouble our efforts. We drill and test students even harder in facts and rote memorization. We work and test them even harder on using the tools for communication (e.g. code) rather than the tools for thought (e.g. intuition, visualization, etc.)

Our educational institutions--at every level--need drastic changes or we're all screwed. The generation of students we're turning out today need skills nobody really cared about 50, 40, even 20 years ago. Where we used to prepare students for a "job for life", now we must prepare students to be jobless. We must prepare them to think fast, learn faster, and unlearn even faster ("yes, that drug was the appropriate way to treat the XYZ disease, but that was so last week. THIS week we now realize it'll kill you.")

The Waterfall Model of education is failing like never before. We need Agile Learning.

Three of the many people who've been leading the charge on this are Roger Schank, Dan Pink (his "Whole New Mind" book is a must-read), and computing/learning guru Alan Kay. One of my favorite Alan Kay notions is something like this, "If you want to be a better programmer, take up the violin." He claims that the more time he spends playing music, the fresher and better his approaches to engineering become. He's an outspoken critic of engineering students focusing too early in their education, because he believes that with a more liberal arts education, you get metaphors and ways of thinking and seeing that are vital to your later engineering work.

I'll end this with two quotes:

From Jason Fried:
"Hire curious people. Even if they don't have the exact skill set you want, curious, passionate people can learn anything."

And from Jacques Hadamard:
" Logic merely sanctions the conquests of the intuition."

If intuition is the heart of what true experts do, then shouldn't we be trying to teach that? Or at the least, stop stifling and dissing it? And yes, I do believe that we can teach and inspire all those fuzzy things including intuition and even curiosity. But we are running out of time.

[UPDATE: Martin Polley brought up the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, and if you haven't seen it already--I urge you to check it out ASAP!

Mark Fowler was surprised that I didn't bring up the book What the Best College Teachers Do, and I can't believe I left it out of the post. I believe it is the single best book on helping someone learn. When we had our most recent author's bootcamp, it was the one book we gave to all attendees. Thanks Mark.

I highly recommend the comments to this post -- they're insightful on all sides, agreement and disagreement and all points in between. And before you tell me I'm advocating for throwing out fundamentals, memorization, facts, logic, etc... PLEASE look again at my venn diagram ; ) This is about brain balance, and addressing much more of the brain than just the narrow channels that are the parts of the brain that actually "talk." ]

Posted by Kathy on November 2, 2006 | Permalink


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That first quote? Love it. And it states almost exactly why I love having a Liberal Arts education--curious and well-grounded is a good way to be.

Posted by: --Deb | Nov 2, 2006 3:58:44 PM

I somewhat agree. The formal education I got in mathematics and science was not too different from your first circle, but I loved it. I think it boils down to an inner appreciation of knowledge and love of science (and the willingness to work hard). Unfortunately in a world where someone who can throw a ball gets more celebrity than a brilliant thinker, that is a tough proposition. In such an environment, there is a need to excite children, and there your ideas are bang on. I would take it one step further. The love of maths/science needs to come from middle school (or even before). Its pointless improving college education if school education has already made you hate the subjects.

Posted by: Deepak | Nov 2, 2006 5:26:20 PM

I'm not sure why you're picking on the U.S. system? Are you implying that the Chinese system is more agile (or any other country)? The countries that purport to have the "best" education systems seem to violate all of those rules. They teach rigorous fundamentals to be sure, but from an early age, Asian children are funneled into tracks and they certainly believe their entire careers are dependent on test taking abilities--get into the right school, get a VISA to study in the US, etc. They don't have time to enjoy the liberal arts perspective because they're so busy cramming their heads full of "useless" knowledge.

I don't disagree that we should reform some things, but the entire world is guilty of this shortsightedness, not just the U.S.

Posted by: Chris | Nov 2, 2006 6:40:42 PM

My degree is in mathematics, and what I loved about it was that it requires _both_ the intuition you talk about _and_ a disciplined methodology for developing and communicating proofs based on the intuition.

If you have just the left-brain stuff, you're a calculator rather than a mathematician, but having just the right-brain stuff and insufficient left-brain skills leads to two problems.

Firstly with the Jason Fried quote in mind, passion and curiosity are necessary, but you also need the skill to express what you need to express: for example a pianist can't interpret a piece by Bach without having spent years practising scales.

Secondly, with the Jacques Hadamard quote in mind, yes indeed logic does sanction intuition, but I wouldn't have said "merely", because intuitions are often wrong, even the ones that feel 100% right, and that's why you need the humility and discipline to lay out step by step, making all your assumptions explicit, how someone who doesn't share your intuition can arrive at the same conclusion. The formal discipline of mathematics gets you from "truthiness" to truth.

Posted by: I must have been lucky with my mathematics instructors | Nov 2, 2006 7:10:14 PM

I went to RPI from 1998-2002 (yes, during their recent decline into suckdom) studying engineering, but I must say, most of the things in the "What they actually need" circle we did learn/cover/talk about in class. Granted, we also did all the "What we teach" circle, and more so than those in the other, and with not enough emphasis, but those were not totaly foreign topics.

Posted by: SteveA | Nov 2, 2006 7:17:22 PM

Ah, further verification that attending my lovely liberal arts college was the write choice, regardless of my degree.

Thank you.

Posted by: Alredhead | Nov 2, 2006 7:18:26 PM

Ah, further verification that attending my lovely liberal arts college was the right choice, regardless of my degree.

Thank you.

Posted by: Alredhead | Nov 2, 2006 7:19:17 PM

I remember my first job out of the U.S. Navy was working at a Newspaper. Rather than walk through my resume, the manager pulled out a schematic, told me the symptoms, and asked me to troubleshoot the issue. I walked through how I would narrow down the issue and he hired me on the spot.

I would never be where I'm at if I hadn't been given that opportunity.

The problem with exams and tests are that they are written by people who take exams and tests for a living. I've taken a couple of Microsoft Practice exams and was shocked at my scores; even though I've been consulting on Microsoft technologies for years.

Technology exams should all be taken utilizing the actual hardware, the software, the internet, and any manuals you wish to buy. That's the way that we work every day... that should be the way we get tested.

If this is your hiring practice, you'll simply have a team of folks with lots of certificates that are great at taking tests. You may not have an application that actually works.

Posted by: Doug Karr | Nov 2, 2006 7:33:17 PM

I'd just like to echo Chris' comment above that the U.S. system is much better than the rest of the developed worlds in that we don't focus too early and everyone (physicists included) are expected to do well on critical analysis on poems as well as calculus to be a successful student.

I'd like to add that I think this post is pretty far off base. The overall point is well taken, but you're essentially arguing the opposite extreme: go from memorization and standardized tests to intuition and "wholistic thinking" (HAH!). It's nice to think that everyone should be innovative and able to tackle any problem, but entirely unrealistic. I don't want a whollistic structural engineer, I want someone who knows the physics of building buildings. Sure, you don't train someone for a single job for life, but most people will have one career in their life. Besides, at least in my personal experience our system is really not all that bad at teaching intuition and general problem solving. I have a B.S. in physics from one of the top 3 physics schools, and I'm currently pursuing a Ph.D. in physics in one of the other top 3 schools. My classes involve essentially zero memorization and focus on understanding the core concepts, building problem solving skills and intution.

Posted by: Jorge | Nov 2, 2006 7:38:18 PM

I'll have to disagree. Engineering education is not about happy feelings and social love-ins, or even design - there are degrees for those things too. It's about learning the laws of physics as they pertain to your chosen craft.

The shame is this: My engineering degree took 128 hours to complete. only 18 of those were NOT math/science. I believe I would have been better off if I had been forced/allowed to take at least double that in liberal arts, preferrably more. That makes engineering a 5-6 year program for a BS - hard to stomach for an 18 year old.

Later in life I found myself reading lots of classics and learning from them. My liberal arts friends did it in college - perhaps I should have too. But doing so didn't make me a better engineer, just a happier person.

Posted by: Damon | Nov 2, 2006 8:00:37 PM

Great comments as usual...

I just wanted to make a couple of clarifcations:

* I'm not picking on the US to the exclusion of other countries... I simply do not know enough about other educational systems to have a valid opinion. So while *I* am talking only about the US, it may apply to most other places as well.

Jorge: "but you're essentially arguing the opposite extreme: go from memorization and standardized tests to intuition and "wholistic thinking"

No, I'm not arguing that at all, but I probably made it sound that way. My point--and the reason I had that overlapping section in the venn diagram -- is not that we need to switch from one extreme to the other, but that we need to include more of what's outside the overlap on the right, and less of what's outside the overlap on the left. But you can see from my diagram that I included logic, key facts, memorization, symoblics, etc. as being an essential part of what's needed.

Jorge: "I have a B.S. in physics from one of the top 3 physics schools, and I'm currently pursuing a Ph.D. in physics in one of the other top 3 schools."

That's the point... you shouldn't NEED to be at one of the top 3 schools to get the kind of well-balanced education that you're obviously getting.

And what sparked this post for me is that I spent yesterday talking with an M.I.T. multiple-Ph.D (engineering/CS) professor who firmly believes that even at some of the top technology-focused schools (including M.I.T.), there are severe problems with the program--and the students they're graduating. (He blames it in large part on the marketing/PR of the schools -- they make it sound as though the reason to go there is to get the valuable job-getting degree, rather than because you care about the quality of the work you'll ultimately do in the field.)

Deepak: So, so, so well-put. It's not college we should be worried about.

Doug: I agree with you about the certifications/exams, and, well, I'm guilty of contributing to this problem as a developer of certification exams for Sun/Java! I will say that we've been trying hard over the last few years to shift the exams from purely "knowledge-based" to more "performance-based", where rather than ask a series of fact questions, we now show code that reflects a critical concept, and see if they can figure out what's going on (or what's going wrong), based on their understanding of how the language actually works.

I must have been lucky: point very well taken. The balance is what's most needed. My concern is that it's always been fairly out of balance, and this imbalance becomes more of a problem as the rate of change increases. Whatever the Moore's Law is for education, we're not keeping up with it either in content or--especially--in application of learning theory. Most public educational institutions in the US (and possibly elsewhere) are teaching with methods that are almost entirely in opposition to how the brain learns and remembers. These things need to change.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 2, 2006 8:19:02 PM

Damon: I have to disagree with this: "Engineering education is not about happy feelings and social love-ins, or even design - there are degrees for those things too." If you believe that these skills -- intuition, creativity, aesthetics (see David Gelernter's "Machine Beauty") -- are about "happy feelings" and social love-ins, this is exactly the problem I'm talking about. We mock and dismiss as irrelevant the cognitive tools that are not only relevant but in some cases *more* relevant to how experts actually do their work in math, science, engineering...

When you say: "It's about learning the laws of physics as they pertain to your chosen craft." Well, there's learning the laws, sure, but factual knowledge will only get us so far. We need people who can solve entirely new classes of problems... who can imagine new laws. We need breakthroughs and conceptual leaps, not just more people who are able to comprehend and apply what's already been discovered and built.

You made a crucial good point about both your own education and why it's not an easy solution, given the already steep time burden we place on students. Of course, if better learning mechanisms were in place, education would be a lot more efficient...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 2, 2006 8:33:14 PM

I would encourage you to look at Waldorf education as a good starting place for elementary education. My wife and I chose this for our children for some of the reasons you quoted above. I won't go into the details of Waldorf education though I will say that try to balance educating the head, heart and hands of the child. They happen to be several in your community (Boulder, Niwot and Denver).

Posted by: Marty Haught | Nov 2, 2006 8:49:25 PM

That graphic made me want to stand up and shout AMEN!

As a homeschooling (and actually quite normal) mom (gasp!) who spent the bulk of her life frustrated at the educational system...it just made my day to see everything laid out so clearly in your illustration. I am going to print that graphic out and stick it with our schoolbooks. It will be a great reminder of the goals we are trying to achieve.

Posted by: Lisa | Nov 2, 2006 9:08:32 PM

Marty: Wow -- coincidentally, my daughter--who has been working at Montessori schools (currently one in Boulder)--just told me she wants to work at a Waldorf, and was telling me some of her reasons. I like the Montessori approach a LOT--Skyler was there until high school--but there do seem to be some interesting things about Waldorf. OK, since you mentioned that, I'll make it a point to learn more. Thanks.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 2, 2006 9:17:27 PM

This reminds me of the talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave at TED. It goes back a lot further than college. In his talk, Sir Ken talks about how our school system "educates out" the creativity from children, and what we can do to make things better. It's a must-see.

Posted by: Martin Polley | Nov 2, 2006 9:22:29 PM

Great subject - very close to home. I have two daughters, 6 and 4, who are just starting their academic careers. My oldest is in 1st grade here in Jefferson County and is in a program called 'investigations math'. The idea is to eliminate the rote memorization in favor of exploratory learning. I'm torn because I can't imagine higher level mathematics without having that basics memorized. On the other hand, I think rote memorization stifles creativity and makes students hate the subject. We actually need both. Think of all the amazing software that is written by creative engineers, all of which is based on repeatable, predictable algorithms. You’d have some pretty ugly programs out there if everyone had to refigure things like bubble sorts and link lists because a CS101 prof let the freshmen figure it out on their own and didn’t them when they were wrong. I think it’s cool to explore the many different ways to come up with the correct answer, but what I’m finding, at the 1st grade level, is that the teachers really aren’t supposed to tell the kids how to solve a problem so they don’t get the right answers. I see the higher level math – set theory, combinations and permutations right along with counting out 25 beans.

There is a raging debate over this whole approach, and I’m thinking that I will be doing the basic rote level exercises at home while they emphasize the exploratory techniques at school. It speaks to what you are talking about Kathy, but like all good government solutions, I think they are swinging way too far into the right circle. Look at all the amazing comments written here, all of them by people who learned the letters that comprise the words, as well as the spelling, grammar, etc. through rote memorization. This entire comment is based on a 26 letter sing song taught to me by a big yellow bird. Once I had that down I was able to use it to tell stories. I think there is an equivalent in mathematics as well.

Posted by: Matt Weiser | Nov 2, 2006 9:25:45 PM

Absolutely spot on!

Damon said "Engineering education is not about happy feelings and social love-ins, or even design... It's about learning the laws of physics as they pertain to your chosen craft."

Imho, this pretty well summarises the whole problem.
Firstly, engineering _is_ about design (at least, in part). By ignoring that fact, we're making the perpetuation of poor education all the easier.

Secondly, "learning the laws of physics" is at the very heart of the issue. What is happening with education at the moment is that students are "learning" things (eg. laws of physics). What is being largely ignored is trying to determine whether those students "understand" those things. This all gets back to previous posts about the difference between knowledge and understanding. The education system at the moment is biased (heavily) toward knowledge - whereas (imho, of course) it should be biased toward understanding.
The point where you have an understanding of a subject, _then_ you are able to make decisions that look for all the world like intuitive leaps.

And finally, it's comforting that the word "craft" was used - good engineering is as much a craft as it is a science. It is the creative elements of engineering that seem to be largely ignored (even actively discouraged in some cases) in the educational institutions.

The worrying effect that I see/have seen is not that it takes time and effort for students to learn all of the things they need to know to work effectively in the real world - but that the education system is so biased toward students who are able to absorb facts that it is excluding many gifted individuals from actually becoming engineers.
Basically, the graduates that we get are determined by the criteria that are used for assessing them. If we want to end up with good engineers, then the education system has to start assessing (and teaching) those things that make good engineers - rather than just what's easy.

Posted by: omni | Nov 2, 2006 9:45:13 PM

Relevant and provocative thoughts here. Have posted my take on it on my blog - here's the permalink - http://simply-speaking.blogspot.com/2006/11/teaching-what-is-needed.html

Posted by: Geetha Krishnan | Nov 2, 2006 10:45:13 PM


The issue as I see it (and I've been actively researching, playing with and exploring this exact topic for about 8 years now) is we don't actually know _HOW_ we do what we do. Take for example this post - How did you write it? I dare you to give me a strategy with exact steps to follow that allows me, or anyone else, to produce equivalent content. Bet you you can't.

We are raised and taught using a specific method. This is the method we think we should use to teach, when as you point out, it's not what we actually do. We do this, knowing (usually) there is a disconnect between the teaching method and the topic, but not having an alternative way to teach.

Hell, even teachers fall into this trap with teaching! I'm sure you have experience of learning from your favourite teacher in school. Now compare that with your most hated teacher. What makes the difference? It's certainly not the amount of information each teacher had.

On another note, every school and university stifles and stops intuition. Don't believe me? Do a well known research experiment and get different results from the standard. Your results are then branded 'wrong' and you need to repeat the experiment until you get it 'right'. This of course ensures you fit into the well travelled road, directing your thinking, behaviour and intuition to be the same as all others. This of course then stops the intuition being intuition and makes it mundane common sense. Or, to put it another way - great training on thinking inside the box.

I could discuss this topic for hours. Instead I'll simply say that the responsibility for learning is with the student.

Posted by: Michael Vanderdonk | Nov 2, 2006 11:40:05 PM

I'd have to agree with you Kathy. As an employee of an institution of higher education and an adjunct faculty therein, I am seeing more and more of this all the time. To the point, we're spending many more dollars teaching people the things they need to come up to speed to attend university as they are just NOT getting it in the public education system. This is the very reason for the decline in our business as we move from Generation X students who were passionate about learning (lifelong learners) to Generation Y who are concerned about not being left behind.

Of course the trend started more than 10 years ago. One of my professors once asked my MBA class how many were attending because it was their ticket to a better job or promotion. Everyone but me raised their hands. When he asked me what I was there for I told him I was there for the pure challenge, because I thrive on learning more and more. I also explained that as a programmer, that I would have significantly advanced my career through certifications but that those certification wouldnt have given me what I truly wanted, knowledge about the business needs that I was attempting to address daily in software. Thats the 'deep dive' I was after.

I have some ideas on how to address the situation at the institutional level. Obviously, a lot depends on the politics and the national zeitgeist on education. I think a balanced education would certainly serve us well. For my part, I believe the love of learning starts at home. My oldest son is a hungry mind because I spend 15 minutes with him every night before bed explain the science behind things like genes, blood, stars, chemistry, computers, etc. He's hungry to learn more about these things in school. He's become my passionate learner and that was and is the whole point.

Posted by: Greg B | Nov 3, 2006 12:20:42 AM

I recently found a very interesting website:
There you can purchase ad space for your Blog etc.

Posted by: jack | Nov 3, 2006 1:05:20 AM

I think one of the points that's not coming across in this post is that in "A Whole New Mind" the point isn't to go completely R-directed thinking, but to combine L-directed and R-directed thinking.

I'm suprised you didn't mention anything from "What the best college teachers do". They're already doing most of this, and concentrating on what matters. Maybe it's time that this became the norm?

Posted by: Mark Fowler | Nov 3, 2006 2:39:25 AM

This time, I do not agree at all. The right circle topics are not of the type that can be consistently teached. They came, none the less, from deep knowledge and thought on the left side circle topics.
An "Agile" knowledge as described is doomed to be skin level.

When I was a young engineering student, I had the occasion to confront with many European students of the same subject. I was regularly beating them despite the terrible reputation of the italian higl level education system. Why? Because we had more and more and more of the left side circle; more than anybody else.
Those techniques actually teached me how to learn and problem solving.

Posted by: Sevenoaks | Nov 3, 2006 2:42:37 AM

Isnt this where games, play and toys show up as emergent paths around the problem? People are attracted to the right sphere possibly from spending too much time, or effort, on the left one. This type of description of the state of education is another guiding logic which can help us make better games which almost per definition (if you agree with Raph Kosters theory of fun) teaches users about things.

I myself felt this problem a lot, altho in the swedish school system, and I believe I unconciously took it upon myself to shift my education towards understanding more about the right circle (much due to my fathers excellence in technical pyhsics and innovation but also) from playing a lot of games and musical instruments. (Mostly together with other people.)

Now my daughter isnt even 1 year old yet but I definately want her to feel better about spending a massive part of her young life in various schools. How do you go about influencing the system?

Posted by: Wolfe | Nov 3, 2006 3:52:32 AM

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