A tale of two touchstones

May 6th, 2013, Published in Articles: Energize

by Mike Rycroft, editor

Much has been said recently about the shortage of qualified entrants into the engineering profession in particular and technology based careers in general. The blame is generally placed on the shortcomings in the education system and its inability to prepare learners for careers, particularly in the teaching of mathematics and science. Part of the problem could be that secondary and even tertiary education is too broad, too general, not sufficiently career based and is more aimed at producing academic qualifications than employable staff.

This editorial has its roots in two recent visits, occurring within a short space of one another. The first was a visit to my old school, which is celebrating its 50th year of existence. It is now a School of Technology, basically a normal high school offering technical subjects. The biggest change is that it has become a co-ed institution, with a significant number of girl learners. I was fortunately  able to interview the Deputy Head of Technology during the visit.

The second visit was to the official sod turning ceremony of a new factory being  built in the Coega Industrial Development Zone to manufacture components for wind turbines. The ceremony involved speeches by numerous local and national dignitaries, many of which made mention of the shortage of skilled and trained staff in the industry. Both visits involved lengthy discussions on training for careers in technology, and the old demons of mathematics and science featured predominantly.

Lets start with the second visit. The manufacturing company concerned proudly stated that they had the capacity and ability to source and train staff to run the operation. This was no idle boast as they had recently established a similar sized facility elsewhere and had recruited and trained the more than 1000 staff required.

So there are people out there who can be trained and can acquire the skills needed. Why then the claims of a dearth of qualified people in the industry? One of the speakers stated that a recent survey showed that universities had the capacity to double the number of students graduating. If this is the case, then the system cannot be held to blame, but rather the number of persons moving through it. Is the problem perhaps a lack of interest in technology as a career? Lets revisit the school for an answer. They have the capacity to accept 200 new Grade 8 learners every year, and receive 500 applications. The applicants success depends on the results of an aptitude test conducted by the school, featuring guess what? Maths and science. So there is no lack of learners at that level wishing to pursue a career in technology.

What then happens between this stage and the final emergence of a qualified engineer or technician? Is the problem perhaps that our secondary education system is too academic in nature? That perhaps learners receive too little career based information and too little exposure to what careers involve.

To go back to the second event, one of the speakers drew an interesting comparison with the South Korean education system, which is strongly career based and co-ordinated with the national objectives, and stated that the Korean government does not allow or support any institution that does not produce skills that can  be used in the attainment of those  objectives.
Possibly we try to teach too much, and this results in an overload which overcomes many potential graduates. At the school, the deputy head expressed the opinion that the education program focuses too much on teaching detail, while neglecting the basic principles. We try and pump too much information into students heads, without establishing a solid understanding of the basics.

Is this important? Yes if you compare how much of what is taught is eventually used in practice, with how much of what is used is learned after qualification. Post qualification learning requires a solid grounding in the basics.

The same applies to schools where academic learning is the rule. Is there perhaps too little connection between what is taught and its application in the real world?  This applies particularly to science and mathematics. Some of the science taught in schools admittedly can be applied to everyday experience, but unfortunately the same does not apply to mathematics, which is often taught as an abstract subject. This is a great mistake as mathematics had its beginnings in the solving of practical problems, and is really just a tool used by engineering and other disciplines, rather than the esoteric or arcane set of knowledge which it has come to be regarded. Maybe  there would be greater success in maths and science if the practical application of these subjects was taught alongside the theory, and this would also result in subjects which have no practical application being discarded.

In spite of the constant claims of shortage of qualified staff, there are people who can be trained and there is the potential to overcome this problem if the right career orientated approach to education is adopted.

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