All EEs don’t need to learn Laplace Transforms

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Electrical engineers at Penn State have to take EE350, a course on Laplace transforms. It’s notoriously difficult–abstract and math intensive with tough assignments and tests. People often fail multiple times, and many drop out of electrical engineering because of the class.

The professor once explained why he made the class so hard. He said something like: “One day someone in this class will have to design air traffic control systems using Laplace transforms. If I pass you when you can’t do the work, then you’ll cause a lot of harm.” I remember agreeing with that basic logic.

I now see that my agreement was self-serving. I’m just lucky that I was able to do well in classes like that, and I supported a stance that privileged people like me.

The fact is that the EE350 coursework was much more difficult than what you’d encounter in most jobs. I’m guessing that in most cases you could get away with some pre-packaged software that requires only basic knowledge of LT. You definitely wouldn’t need to solve problems under time pressure.

The disconnect between EE350 as a course and its practical use isn’t surprising because it wasn’t designed for students to use the content. If that were the goal, we would have focused much less on theoretical concepts and mathematical wizardry.

EE350–like all of higher education–was designed by and for academics. They like the problem sets and theorems approach to learning, which is why the course exists as it does. Students who might make great engineers but don’t have the skill-set to pass EE350, or who don’t do well with the academic approach to learning, are simply out of luck.

For my senior design project, I worked with someone I’ll call J. He was one of the best engineers I’ve ever met. He had a special knack for debugging what was wrong: more capacitance in one part of the circuit, overheating in another, etc. In one of the few classes that attempted to replicate on-the-job engineering, he excelled.

But he also failed EE350 multiple times, delaying his graduation. Although I suspect he eventually passed, I don’t know what he, or anyone else, gained by forcing him to take the class. I’m not sure why should have had to.

There are many people like J–those who would succeed in white-collar careers but are hampered by the academic approach to learning. They too would benefit from rethinking college and work pathways, and reform efforts shouldn’t ignore them to focus solely on vocational students.

Academia was built by and for academics

A genuine commitment to [an] inclusive society requires a willingness to shape institutions to that end, even when doing so is for the benefit of others or when it creates tension with other values – Oren Cass

As a conservative who’s written extensively on diversity, I appreciated Cass’s emphasis on creating an inclusive society. In higher education, diversity and inclusion understandably focuses race, gender, sexual identity, etc. It’s common to hear phrases like: “An institution built by and for white, cis-gendered males has to be redesigned if we want it to be welcoming to women, minorities, etc.”

Although I may quibble with how diversity programs are implemented (intellectual and viewpoint diversity should be a bigger component), in general I sympathize with those arguments. I’m married to a professor of engineering, and so I appreciate how corrosive sexism in academia can be.

But at least with gender, many administrators recognize changes need to be made and have some ideas on what to do. Not so with Cass’s “other half”–students who might be better off on a vocational track. They are rarely, if ever, included in diversity dialogues. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be anytime soon.

For all the changes in higher education over the centuries, it still has the same basic premise: the only way students learn is for a professor to teach them in a classroom setting. I call it the academic approach to learning.

Sure now we may have the occasional project-based course, and many professors also do try to use practical case studies in their teaching. And some majors may require a few semesters of work to graduate.  But all of these examples still exist within the paradigm that learning primarily occurs in a classroom. Even majors like engineering or accounting rely on the academic approach.

This approach, needless to say, works best for those who enjoy formal learning, advancing scholarship, and pursuing knowledge for its own sake: i.e., academics. More than a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation, academia was designed by and for academics. The neglect of non-academics is the major inclusivity deficit colleges face.

But meaningfully changing this property would negate colleges’ reason for being and undermine their own existence. If learning can meaningfully happen outside a classroom, then why would we need colleges?

Which is why higher higher education will never be able to truly welcome vocational students. They almost always need the opposite of what colleges offer–practical experience rather than academic knowledge. Institutions that catered to them wouldn’t look anything like higher education as we know it.

Even stronger, institutions that catered to students who just want a job wouldn’t look anything like higher education as we know it. It’s not just vocational students who are short-changed by the academic approach to learning. The overwhelming majority of students who simply want to work are poorly served by this model.

Which brings me back to the idea of a working, rather than just vocational, track. Almost all students need practical experience over academic knowledge. That’s what we need to be pushing. My next few blog posts will go into a few concrete examples of how the academic approach fails students even in engineering and business.

College is for jobs

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Before I get into more details of the working track, I want to lay out my core premise when it comes to college education: college is for jobs, and work is better than education. Put another way: mass college education exists to help people become more productive workers, and thus working is better than education for its own sake

I know us over-educated types often believe that education is intrinsically worthwhile, and that college is to learn how to think or expand your horizons or study the classics or whatever. Maybe you could have made that argument a hundred years ago when higher education was a bunch of white dudes studying gibberish like plasma physics. But not anymore.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the people in college why they are there. Better yet, ask their parents why they want their children in college. Also ask college administrators and department heads why more people should attend college. I’d bet that almost everyone’s response ultimately connects to getting a job. Whatever the historical reasons higher education exists, in the 21st century it’s about work.

I might actually even go a little further and say that after ~10th grade, formal education of any kind is to help people become more productive workers. I get that there are philosophical, non-job related reasons for primary school education (basic literacy and numeracy, social cohesion, a civic culture, patriotism, etc.). But beyond a certain point, formal education should primarily be about helping people succeed in the labor force.

I suspect many academics, and especially those in the pure sciences and humanities, will protest because many of them believe their jobs are special. They’re not. Knowledge-producing jobs are just another type of job, albeit ones that happen to require lots of formal education.

So whether we’re talking about construction, mechanical engineering, cancer research, or philosophy, we should judge college education on how it prepares people for work. It is a brutally utilitarian calculation.

Again: we would be having a different discussion if higher education were still reserved for the elite. But if we’re asking basically everyone to go to college, and allocating hundreds of billions of public dollars to it, then we have no choice but to be utilitarian. And we should do so for everyone, working in all types of jobs.

Oren Cass’s How the Other Half Learns almost gets there. But since his analysis sets up a dichotomy between vocational and college tracks, it doesn’t rethink education as much as it could have. If the central focus of public policy is a strong labor market for all Americans, and if education is to play a role in that goal, then we need to focus on how both halves learn.

The working track

Oren Cass has a couple essays out that previews arguments he’ll expand on in an upcoming book. He discusses many of the themes I’ve touched on: the purposes of education, skills and job success, education standards, and the fact public education should cater to different types of students.

I sum up Cass’s core argument as: the US education system’s strong bias to college attendance does a profound disservice to the overwhelming majority of students. We thus need a vocational / Career and Technical Education (CTE) track: “We need a pathway to prepare young men and women for productive participation in the labor force that relies less on academics and more on concrete skills and real-world experience.”

As much as I love this point, my main criticism is that Cass doesn’t take this line of reasoning far enough. It’s not just CTE students that need less academics and more concrete skills. All students do. I’ve made similar points myself in the context of science literacy and education (see here, here, here, here, here and here).

A separate CTE track doesn’t address the disturbing trend where many white-collar jobs–from receptionists to doctors–require more education than needed. That’s the problem we need to fix–we’re overeducating across the board, not just the kids who ultimately end up as welders or hospital techs.

A vocational-only track will also probably worsen the “cultural imperative to push more people into the college pipeline” because–regardless of pay–the CTE track is where blue-collar workers would end up. And however much my peers praised Geoffrey “All Jobs are Worthwhile” Owens for working at Trader Joe’s, the ugly fact is that we in the educated elite don’t want our children to end up in blue-collar jobs. We’d ensure that CTE never becomes “co-equal.”

So instead of a CTE/college binary, I propose the working track and the college track. The working track would still offer “close partnerships between school systems and employers that get students in the workplace, earning money and industry credentials, while they are still completing their formal education.” But these partnerships and credentials would be for jobs in sales, marketing, engineering, as well as CTE.

Any non-college educational track would enjoy much more support if it included white-collar work and appealed to children with a range of career interests and cognitive abilities. Since people like Cass (and me!) are ultimately talking about overhauling how we think about education, we should aim for as broad a coalition as possible.

I’m going to flesh out this argument over several blog posts. But I’ll basically be expanding on what Cass wrote, and trying to explain why I think almost all jobs ultimately come down to “concrete skills and real-world experience.” That is: most jobs have a very strong vocational component, a fact our educational system should acknowledge.

A nation ruled by science, part 2

Via Rod Dreher, here’s another essay on why it would be terrible to have a nation ruled by science. Greer argues scientists are terrible at political reasoning:

To make a political decision, you sort through the evidence to find the facts that are most relevant to the issue—and “relevant,” please note, is a value judgement, not a simple matter of fact. Using the relevant evidence as a framework, you weigh competing values against one another—this also involves a value judgment—and then you weigh competing interests against one another, and look for a compromise on which most of the contending parties can more or less agree. If no such compromise can be found, in a democratic society, you put it to a vote and do what the majority says. That’s how politics is done; we might even call it the political method.

That’s not how science is done, though. The scientific method is a way of finding out which statements about nature are false and discarding them, under the not unreasonable assumption that you’ll be left with a set of statements about nature that are as close as possible to the truth. That process rules out compromise. If you’re Lavoisier and you’re trying to figure out how combustion works, you don’t say, hey, here’s the oxygenation theory and there’s the phlogiston theory, let’s agree that half of combustion happens one way and the other half the other; you work out an experiment that will disprove one of them, and accept its verdict. What’s inadmissible in science, though, is the heart of competent politics.

I love the term political reasoning. I’ll try expand on it in an upcoming post.


A nation ruled by science…

Happy summer folks! I’m trying to resume blogging after the big move. There’s still much to unpack…but I’m relaxed enough to start focusing on my writing again. With that, here’s a nice quote from a recent Slate essay on how much it would suck to have a country ruled by science:

My work with creationists shows how impossible it is for humans to behave rationally. We are always informed by our biases. For example, a careful analysis of creationists’ scientific knowledge shows they know as much science as anyone else. It’s just that they deny scientific claims. In my fieldwork in one creationist evangelical high school, I found students perfectly capable of answering correctly every question about evolution in their AP Biology exam. They simply used phrases like scientists believe in their answers so as not to betray their creationist bona fides. This is actually an extremely rational way for them to handle the discrepancy between their faith and mainstream science.


Moving on up to the east side…

Hello readers. I know you’re used to long absences from me. But I still feel compelled to apologize and explain. My wife and I decided to take the plunge and buy our first house. So we’ve been busy figuring out this crazy world, and planning our move. You can say we’re movin’ on up.

I hope to resume more frequent blogging in July.


Weekend science, religion, and etc. reading list

This one is coming a bit late. I’m making it extra long to make up for it.

  1. First check out the highlights video above of the West Indies victory against England in the T20 World Championship.
  2. Check out the Bald Scientist on the ‘God-Talk’ podcast.
  3. Big data has not revolutionized medicine.
  4. Yet another take on the (allegedly) terrible PhD job market.
  5. The smug style in American liberalism.
  6. Neil deGrasse Tyson is no fun.
  7. The rise and fall of Theranos.

Is religious freedom special?

I want to reflect some more on my recent religious freedom post and the follow-up comments. Victor asked what I meant when I said religion is ‘special.’

Let me explain with a story. I once had a colleague who was an accomplished amateur photographer. Every now and then he hosted an informal ‘Photography 101’ lunchtime seminar. He pitched it as: “Curious about photography? Well, I’m passionate and knowledgeable about it, and can provide some insight. Attend and maybe you’ll start to love photography too!” Now substitute ‘Christianity’ for photography in his pitch and try to imagine the response.

Religious beliefs are often denied the allowances we make elsewhere, like amateur photography. I am almost certain HR wouldn’t allow a ‘Christianity 101’ lunchtime seminar. On the other hand, we grant allowances to religion we don’t grant to others. Religious organizations are exempt from certain Obamacare provisions, for example.

Agellius and Victor argue that this special treatment arises because religion is more than just a belief. It is a way of life above man-made laws. Many religions both compel and prohibit certain actions.

While I agree with that stance, I question whether it uniquely applies to religion. Secular pacifists might also argue that their conscience compels them to act in a certain way. Ethical vegetarians are probably in the same boat, as are people opposed to modern agriculture. Religious faith may impact your way of life in multiple dimensions, and may do so strongly. But it’s a spectrum rather than something unique to faith.

Which is why I think that, in an increasingly secular age, we who care about religious freedom should stress these commonalities. We should highlight that freedom of religion is a subset of freedom of conscience, and that all of us would be aghast if we had to violate our conscience. Christians aren’t special in that regard.