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Machine Design

Problems with pre-engineering education?

You often hear about how excited kids get when they participate in technology programs such as the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). This program tries to cultivate interest in science and technology by having young people learn about robots, build them, and then compete against other FIRST teams. But the reality that emerges when you talk to some of the teachers actually in the trenches is that it is often tough to get kids interested in technology.

For example, a friend of mine who teaches a high-school “Tech Prep” course at a community college in a nearby state says too many students today lack professionalism. “That means being on time, having your materials ready, and not sleeping during class,” he says. “Many students don’t take education seriously. Kids fall asleep in class saying it is boring. Like real life though, not every job or class can be exciting. Teachers can try to make things interesting, but sometimes kids must buckle down and do the tough stuff like learn formulas.”

A lot also depends on circumstances. A kid’s lack of interest can be because of personal stuff. Maybe the parents are divorcing or there are problems at home. Or a kid might have depression issues and sleep in class because he is on medication.

A teacher may feel sorry for the kid, like the bright guy who could have straight A’s but cuts class every other day. “And consider the intelligent kid who looks at me like I just came from the moon when I dock points because he was late for class,” says the teacher. “It’s like they try to play the system instead of just trying to succeed.”

Although the No Child Left Behind program initiated under President George W. Bush has been mostly phased out, similar restraints arguably restrict teachers. For example, one solution put in place is the so-called Individualized Educational Program (IEP). When a kid does poorly in math or reading in the lower grades, the IEP kicks in, and the teacher must give a student one-on-one help. Case workers also create a help list, like “student needs extra time during tests,” or, “student should always use a calculator.” By law, teachers not following through with IEPs can be fined. Ostensibly, IEPs were designed to allow every student to succeed in school. But they can slow down a class.

“What about those students who should really not be in a technical field? They need too much time, too many adjustments made for them, and they will never fully succeed,“ says my friend. “Some students might squeak by and then get a job. The school cannot tell the employer that the kid was in an IEP. The employer just sees the good grades. The kid gets hired and — boom — he or she cannot function. Needless to say, the company will take no more students from that particular prep class.”

— Leslie Gordon, [email protected], Twitter @LeslieGordon

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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