How important is STEM education?

Recent reports have highlighted Australia’s declining results in PISA testing of maths, science and reading capabilities of children. Some in particular have drawn attention to Australia’s relatively weak performance compared with China and Singapore. I am unsure what this means. Should we invest more in maths and science education?

The Singaporean government is making it harder for foreigners to work there. International company people I meet in Singapore complain that young Singaporeans cannot perform as well as foreigners and demand too much pay, and the government is trying to force companies to employ more locals.

Read more: I argue that STEM is not the most important priority

We can educate better leaders!

How often do hear people saying we need better leaders?

We blame our slow responses to climate change on populist leaders. Thanks in part to populist leaders, women still face the same barriers as they did two or three decades ago. We are consuming earth’s irreplaceable resources, mineral and biological, far too fast to ensure future generations share the lifestyle we have today. We can change… but we need good leaders!

We hear time and again how people are losing their trust in leaders, politicians, institutions, and journalists. Where, they ask, are the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Churchills, Ghandis, and Mandelas who could lead us through these challenges?

We have run out of time to sit and wait for a phalanx of talented and inspiring leaders to emerge and rescue us.

I think we can make good leaders emerge much sooner. Universities could do that, but they need some new ideas.

In my research I have tried to understand what engineers do and why they do what they do… or not.

Engineers have to be leaders, no matter how inadequate their people skills. Contrary to what you might think, engineers never build anything themselves. They only achieve results by persuading other people to do their work differently. This is how I came to understand much more about leadership, and how we could develop more effective leaders.

Our education institutions, schools and universities alike, mostly rely on written assessments: exams, or quizzes. Students are rewarded with grades, good or bad. Every time this reinforces a connection between writing and rewards. It is never stated, but deep in students’ subconscious minds, writing grows ever more important while face to face social skills are easily neglected. It’s called the hidden curriculum, what schools teach without ever saying so.

No matter how often teachers and professors tell students that soft skills and emotional intelligence are vital, the hidden curriculum is telling them something else at a much deeper instinctive level.

The same assessments also reinforce another connection. Students are nearly always assessed on their individual performances in exams and tests where collaboration is seen as cheating, and explicitly prohibited. Occasionally group reports carry marks, but students still have to show they contributed individually, and were not free-riding on others’ efforts. The connection between rewards and individual work is reinforced nearly every time.

And thirdly, emotions are seen in school and universities as attributes to be suppressed. Logic should triumph over emotions, evidence over perceptions… surely yes, every time.

Yet, when it comes to leadership, collaboration, social skills and emotional awareness are everything. Good leaders relate to people in emotional spaces, gain their trust and respect, and they hone their face to face social skills.

Of course, universities have used exams for generations. So, why have perceptions on leadership changed so much in the last two to three decades?

I argue that the advent of email and instant text messaging has (again inadvertently) swayed our social interactions because text communication has become fast, free, and easy. Before these innovations, writing letters or documents took much more time, and effort, and we had to pay the post office to send them. Even though educated leaders had an instinctive preference for communicating in writing, time and convenience favoured face to face socialising and phone calls.

Once text messaging became ubiquitous, a new generation of leaders, no more predisposed to writing than their forebears, suddenly embraced the speed and convenience of text without realising perhaps that trust would be an early casualty (also spelling!). We know from decades of psychology research that trust is more strained and fragile when people write to each other instead of meeting face to face.

These influences are accidental. They are by-products of efforts to make assessments as fair and objective as possible, and written communication as fast and convenient as possible. Also to educate students as rational critical thinkers who can develop and analyse arguments for themselves.

So how can we reshape our students’ unconscious instincts that would make it so much easier for them to gain our trust as future leaders? It’s important to understand just how strong this accidental conditioning can be, that favours writing, individual achievement, and suppressing emotions. Persuasion will not work as long as the hidden curriculum is repeatedly reinforcing opposing instincts.

I have some suggestions.

In the short term, particularly with engineers, there’s an opportunity to reshape their instincts in the first few months at work. Many endure a challenging transition from school. Even getting a job can be a soul-destroying experience until they realise that most jobs are never advertised and networking is the only way to find them.

My former students have told me how surprised they were to find that many people just don’t read emails, or misunderstand them. Of course, I enjoy reminding them about all the emails and handouts that they never read as students. This troublesome transition provides a fertile moment of disorientation when instincts can be challenged and reshaped before habits harden with time.  In an environment that favours collaboration, change is easier.

In universities, faculty complain about teaching workloads that make research a weekend or night time hobby. With appropriate instruction in teaching methods, students could learn to teach much of the curriculum. Not only would this relieve faculty, shifting their role to a source of inspiration, and necessary quality assurance, but this change would also promote much more face to face interaction between students, reinforcing their knowledge at the same time.  It is often said that one only really comes to understand ideas when you have to teach them to others.

Students would then be assessed in two dimensions. First on their collaborative efforts, being graded on how well they teach, lead and inspire other students. And second on the equally necessary individual learning that ensures they acquire knowledge and wisdom to make sense of it.

Just think how much easier it could be for young leaders to engage those people in our societies who respond more in emotional spaces, and read reluctantly at best. But that can only happen if emotional awareness and social skills are reinforced through their education. Politicians would not have to resort to populism to build respect and popularity. Instead they would have the skills to help people understand the huge changes we all need to make.

Even today’s leaders could learn a thing or two. Though it could be harder for them to appreciate, later in life, how they have been seduced into text messaging, a habit which inevitably weakens trust and respect.

If you’re a young engineer, or leader reading this, ask yourself before you next send that text. Could I talk face to face instead? If not, could I call? Could we make a time to talk?

And, as always, remember not all people are alike. Some relationships work best through writing. My grandfather and great uncle ran our family business and communicated by letter through their secretaries for decades even though they had adjacent offices!

Read more: Trevelyan, J. P. (2010, October 27-30). Engineering Students Need to Learn to Teach. Paper presented at the 40th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Washington, DC.  Available from IEEE Xplore or myself.

Australian Election Surprise

Some of you may be disappointed with the Australian federal election result last Saturday. Especially if you think like I do, that we need to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse emissions and also to prepare people for much warmer weather to come.

Actually, there’s not much politicians can really do. Think about it. Pretty much everything we need to do to reduce greenhouse emissions relies on engineering and that in turn relies on private finance.

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A Bright Energy Future for Pakistan

Despite current on-going energy shortages and load shedding, Pakistan has energy wealth that could be unlocked just by thinking differently about electricity distribution.

Electricity distribution

Electricity distribution systems are large engineering enterprises (photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission)

Electricity supply is capital intensive engineering. Pakistan built the existing electricity supply network with the help of large loans on favourable terms from the World Bank and other international institutions.

In addition, Pakistan has benefited from the generosity of Saudi Arabia in providing low-cost fuel.

Pakistan has reaped the benefits of large hydroelectric generating plants at Mangla, Tarbela and other dams: they generate electricity with no ongoing fuel costs.

As fuel and capital borrowing costs rose for Pakistan in the last 20 years, and the proportion of cheap hydro power reduced, Pakistan governments shielded people from the real cost of electricity generation with generous subsidies but these cannot continue.

Another factor that frustrates efforts to find energy solutions is the high cost of engineering in Pakistan. Through research we have identified many factors that Pakistan engineers struggle to overcome, such as the deep social divides that inhibit effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between engineers, investors and labour. Given the same requirements for product availability and service quality, the cost is almost invariably higher in Pakistan than in industrialised economies like Europe and the USA. Just as an example, when indirect costs are taken into account, the cost of safe drinking water ranges from US$50 to $150 per tonne in Pakistan while the cost in Australia, the driest continent, is US$3 per tonne.

(This is an updated and extended version of an article published in The News, Pakistan, 31st May 2013)

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What does the Paris Climate Change Treaty mean for engineers?

The Paris climate change agreement has received rather more praise than detailed explanations.  Public discussion during the meeting seemed remarkably muted, perhaps for fear of reawakening ghosts of acrimonious disagreement from Copenhagen, 6 years earlier. I was in Paris on leave for the last few days of the meeting and far more media attention focused on European immigration, Syrian refugees, and the widely expected resurgence of the far-right National Front in local elections.  The National Front lost, the Paris agreement was applauded: everyone sighed with relief and switched attention to Christmas and Star Wars 8. Climate Change quickly vanished as exhausted delegations left Paris.

Galleries-Lafayette-Window 151212

Galleries Lafayette had this stunning Christmas play on Star Wars among
elaborately decorated windows to draw crowds of shoppers.

I believe that the Paris Agreement will soon re-emerge as one of the most significant developments influencing engineering in this century.  It may not have received much media attention yet, but it demands close attention from all of us.

This agreement places enormous responsibilities on us as engineers and the world’s expectations are daunting. Continue reading

Opportunities for Pakistan Engineers

In my last piece I pointed out some of the challenges for engineers in Pakistan.  Yet each of those challenges is an opportunity for any engineer who is prepared to take advantage of them.  Yes, water and power are far too expensive. However, reliably supplying water and power at a lower cost represents a huge commercial opportunity because ordinary people will happily pay for a high quality service that provides real economic value over the alternatives.  Given that water is the equivalent of US$50-$150 per tonne today, supplying safe drinking water at $10 per tonne is a huge improvement.

Here’s an example, my own personal invention, mentioned in the book (Ch13). Air conditioning is unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistan people because most Pakistan buildings are not insulated. Conventional air conditioning consumes large amounts of electricity. Too many people are using conventional air conditioners, leading to electricity load shedding. Continuous air conditioning requires a generator and the electricity cost (with fuel) for a typical room air conditioner is about 20,000 Rs or US$190 for one month.

Take a look at www.closecomfort.com.

This technology can provide similar comfort, running continuously through load shedding on a UPS, for about 1,200 Rs or US$12 monthly electricity cost which is much more affordable. The first production units will be on sale in Islamabad and Lahore in a couple of months time.

Challenges like climate change also represent a huge opportunity for engineers.  Engineers can do more than almost any other occupational group, and can earn high rewards from grateful people at the same time.

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A moratorium on new coal mines: a hypocritical Australian gesture

Recently there has been an Australian move to propose a moratorium on new coal mines.

For several years I have researched energy supplies on the ground in India and Pakistan.  I have also researched how engineers respond to the challenges of energy and water supplies there, and also in Australia.

I strongly disagree with this moratorium proposal.

Why?

First, it will be seen as hypocritical and selfish in countries like India and Pakistan because we Australians, more than many countries, have grown rich and prosperous by burning vast quantities of coal in the past and continue to do so today.

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