Why High School Students Should ‘Dissect’ Power Tools—Not Frogs

Courtesy of BusinessWeek. By Harold L. Sirkin

How do we develop the next generation of tinkerers who will produce the innovative new products and processes that will enable the U.S. to maintain its standard of living and economic leadership? We can start by requiring that students “dissect” power tools in high school.

This idea begins with the late Warren Brookes, who wrote about business and economics for the Christian Science Monitor and later the Detroit News.

Brookes is remembered for his 1982 book, The Economy in Mind. The book was an antidote to the doomsayers of the time who were worried about America’s slow recovery from the “stagflation” of the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Brookes’s message was simple: The U.S. will be OK, as long as we continue to encourage innovation. Our economic future, he argued, was limited only by our imaginations and inventiveness.

My good friend Sridhar Kota, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and director of the school’s Institute for Manufacturing Leadership, makes a similar point. But he takes it a step further.

Kota, who took leave from teaching to serve for three years (2009-12) as assistant director of advanced manufacturing and ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) fellow in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, worries that for the last three decades the U.S. has been steadily falling behind in true innovation, i.e., transforming our own promising discoveries and inventions into practical products to meet societal needs. Scientific discovery is critically important, he stresses, but we need to create something as a result—something concrete and patentable. The mind has to work in partnership with the hands.

“To rekindle true American ‘know-how,’” he wrote recently, “we need to put the ‘&’ back in ‘R&D.’”

Kota also points out: “The scientific discoveries at Bell Labs that led to such inventions as the transistor, the laser, solar cells and satellite communications showed what scientists and engineers could do when they worked together—transform scientific breakthroughs into real products.”

Reestablishing our leadership as creators and producers of advanced products and technologies is a process that needs to begin in our schools, Kota says.

“While U.S. high schools commonly require students to dissect a frog”—useful, I suppose, if you’re planning to be a surgeon, fish monger, or high school biology teacher—“hardly any require students to disassemble a power tool,” he observes. “No matter their age, empowering students to take things like power tools apart can engage them in design, materials, manufacturing, and safely challenges young minds by tapping into the curiosity and creativity that many children naturally have.”

Currently, engineering is the poor stepchild of the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. Of the estimated $1.3 billion that Washington allocates to STEM programs, just 1 percent goes to engineering, Kota says.

Kota makes the argument that exposure to real-world engineering challenges will inspire a lot of young people to think seriously about pursuing such careers, either in college or through vocational training.

Brookes and Kota, though three decades apart, are singing from the same song sheet.

American economic advancement depends as much on our intellectual abilities as on our resources and riches. But breakthroughs in the lab are not enough. Progress also depends on the tinkerers among us who can find novel ways to apply these breakthroughs to our lives.

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