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MOOC Gives Head Start to Future Engineers


We’ve been hearing for years about America’s need for more STEM graduates. One of the problems colleges have found in trying to serve that need is that the high school graduates they’re supplied with are all too often uninformed and unprepared for STEM work. As a result, nearly half of all students who set out to get an engineering degree fail, either dropping out or switching to another program.

Brown University is working on a possible solution to this problem, and it relies on one of our favorite academic innovations: the MOOC, or massively open online course. The New York Times reports that Brown offers an online course designed for high school students considering studying engineering in college. The program, which debuted earlier this month, quickly reached its cap of 500 students:

“The real goal here is to get students interested in engineering to better understand engineering, so that they can make good decisions about what they do in the next step,” said Wendy Drexler, director of online development at Brown. “If they decide that they’re interested in engineering and they want to apply to different engineering schools, we want them to have all the information they need.”…

“This is the kind of innovative leadership that can be a game changer for students,” said Josh Coates, chief executive of Instructure, the software company that provided the platform for Brown’s project. “We all know we need more STEM education, and bridging the gap between college and high school with an open online course is a great way to get more kids into these kinds of fields and more interested in the college experience.”

Even with all of its problems, America’s higher education system is still the best in the world; in this case, the primary school system is the weak link. Anything that aims to strengthen that link is worth a shot.

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  • Jim Luebke

    Kids just aren’t prepared for the fact that Engineering is, well, HARD. (Mostly it’s the math. Barbie wasn’t just whining… it’s a very rare human being, male or female, that can’t be reduced to tears of frustration or despair by being forced to learn sufficiently advanced math.)

    Half of engineering classes are “weeder” classes. First-year calc. Second-year calc. Physics (Dynamics, E&M.) Thermodynamics. Fluid Mechanics. Heat Transfer. And they all build on top of each other — if you don’t learn your calc, you’ll fail physics. If you don’t learn your physics, you’ll fail Mechanics. Slow down, and you get trampled.

    Honestly, what would prepare students best for Engineering is to make high school much, much more demanding. The kind of demanding that just doesn’t accept excuses, social promotion, or anything other than a real prospect of success to let students feel good about themselves.

    Another thing that might help is giving students a longer timescale to “get it” — going through the material and methods in these classes two or even three times, to make sure the foundation is there (and that it’s remembered more than 15 minutes past when the final is over!) could give us the expanded engineering base we need to multiply our economic base of high-tech companies.

  • Anthony

    Does the USA really need as many STEM workers as Professor Mead thinks? I know several older engineers who cannot find work. While it is true that young STEM grads are generally successful in obtaining a job, a lot of corporations are laying off older engineers. They are replaced with new hires that are willing to work for a lower salary. Also, corporate America wants to keep STEM worker pay from getting too high by bringing in more immigrants. Don’t take my work for it. There are many websites where engineers talk about their bleak job prospects in the current economy. Here is a quote I found from an online forum maintained by an electrical engineering trade group.

    “One thing that I find irritating is that the same people who are offshoreing engineering jobs complain that US students don’t take science and math. It never seems to occur to them that students are very sensitive to job prospects. If they don’t believe that they can have good careers in engineering they will not undertake such a difficult course of study. If all the profession promises is age discrimination and job instability, then it is not as attractive.”

    If we really had a shortage of engineers, basic economics tells you that there would be big increases in their salaries until enough people are attracted to these fields to end the shortage. With the exception of petroleum engineering – where there has been a big increase – engineering salaries have merely kept pace with inflation.

    Then again, even in light of this information, STEM majors are probably still a good choice for a young person. If engineers are having trouble finding work, people with degrees in less rigorous fields are probably in worse shape.

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