PLAYING WITH OUR POTENTIAL: THE FUTURE TEXAS WORKFORCE
By Laura Seargeant Richardson
The headlines are staggering. According to Newsweek the United States is in a creativity crisis. TIME reports that today’s students are less tolerant of ambiguity and have an aversion to complexity. The Futurist suggests the biggest challenge facing our children is their inability to think realistically, creatively and hopefully about the future. And when the New York Times recently asked 18 high school seniors to predict their future only three hoped to have a career with a STEM focus such as a doctor or microbiologist. Not a single engineer was among them.
In 2004, Governor Perry announced his vision for building Texas’ future economy. The answer, determined by the 2001 Cluster Mapping project, suggested that six industries were key contributors. These industries range from aerospace and biotechnology to computer technology and energy. Are we adequately preparing our children – our future workforce – to meet this challenge? Absolutely not.
During a recent visit to an Austin elementary school, I asked the head librarian what careers the children most discuss. She mentioned teachers, doctors and vets (because children experience those first hand) and more recently, the growing interest in being a soldier (because of our country’s increased coverage of war). Children also expressed being what they see within their families and few seem to have role models that are scientists or engineers. However, the librarian was proud to point out her growing repository of engineering books and took me to her materials room to show me the new collection called Engineering Is Elementary, produced by the Museum of Science. With topics ranging from Seeing Animal Sounds, Improving Play Dough and Marvelous Machines, the material was clearly compelling. But when I asked if the teachers were using them, she shook her head. “No,” she sighed, “it’s not part of the standard curriculum we are testing.” She was quick to add, “But there is one teacher using them – she teaches GT (gifted and talented).” What do we learn from this little exercise? “Teaching to the test” severely cripples the opportunity for students to discover anything outside the core curriculum. Even worse, only 7.5 percent of students statewide are in gifted programs according to 2010 statistics. Thus, the materials (however inspiring) will only be seen by roughly 8 out of 100 students. We need to start igniting the fire earlier – even middle school may be too late. Unfortunately, this isn’t our biggest challenge.
The documentary, 2 Million Minutes (the amount of time a student has in four high school years), highlights the stark contrast between the cultures of the United States, China and India. In China and India, engineering and science are seen as a “passport out of poverty.” Could this be our message to the minority majority? Perhaps, but it should have been our message twenty years ago. As one Harvard professor fretted, “It takes decades to create a high performing scientist or engineer.” The documentary also highlights something else. In India, engineering is no longer seen as cool. While a generation ago the students looked forward to the discipline, today they see it as a commodity furthering their country’s homogeneity. And they are right.
When I spoke last year at MIT on the future of play, I met Woodie Flowers, an emeritus professor of Mechanical Engineering. Dr. Flowers recently presented a disturbing conclusion to faculty – MIT engineers were not prepared for the real world. “Learning differential equations is training; learning to think using the insights from differential equations is education – they are profoundly different.” He concluded that the engineer of 2020 needs to focus on creativity and synthesis rather than analysis. While Austin’s Chamber of Commerce 2010 Education report suggests that our graduates are more academically prepared, this measurement is largely based on the TAKS test data. Additionally, the report states that EISD is addressing the students’ need to be “career-ready” by offering Chinese, robotics, and film production. Based on Dr. Flower’s definition, is this training or education? These additions to the curriculum are not wrong, but they may be misguided.
Recently I attended the documentary Race to Nowhere at a local Austin high school. The movie revealed that nearly 50 percent of college freshman must be remediated in basic math and English. Kids are cheating their way through school in an effort to keep up – we have made it impossible to succeed otherwise. You might say we have convinced students that it’s the most important 21st Century literacy. We have made them mediocre test takers in exchange for critical thinkers. After the movie, the Austin principal not only called the TAKS testing “ridiculous,” but also cited that her teachers must now “cultivate creative problem solving” because students don’t want to do it – they do not believe it is valued by our culture. And why would they?
The truth is, Texas is sending the wrong message. We don’t need great test takers – what we need are synaesthetic scientists, dimensional designers, and entrepreneurial engineers. Take my former employer, Trilogy, once described by Fast Company as Insanity Inc. Candidates didn’t simply need to program well, they needed to brainstorm all possible ideas for bubble wrap. In those people, the company found not only the best innovations, but the best builders of those ideas. And at frog design, we hire fluid thinkers – visual, product, and interaction designers, technologists and strategists – who can take on any complex challenge thrown at us by companies who thrive on change. Because our clients know the future is about making it.
In the end, the biggest disservice to our children is our inability to adequately prepare and excite them for the opportunities Texas creates. They have little concept of jobs that are beyond the basics: lawyer, doctor, hair dresser. What is a NoSql Developer? A Coumadin LVN? A Social Media Strategist? A “Future” Job Fair Day would have high school students researching the most futuristic jobs and introducing other kids to what the job entails. As Dean Kamen once said, “Societies get the best of what they celebrate.” Ask any Texas student what we celebrate and they will tell you – Football and TAKS testing. But simply “passing” won’t make Texas the next Silicon Valley.
Laura Seargeant Richardson is Principal Designer at frog design, Austin.
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