• apdobaj

Tech Ed Exposed - What Are We Missing?

As an entrepreneurial technologist (ET), I quiz my sons periodically

regarding what amazing things they they are learning in technology

class so that I could fill in any gaps and impart my own experiences

and fascination. I have been dismayed to learn that “tech” class has

seemingly come to be about using technology and not about

understanding technology. It seems a shortcoming in our educational

system that a high school graduate hasn't even a rudimentary

understanding of the astonishing technologies that he or she takes

for granted almost every waking minute of every day. Observe the

blank stares when you ask high school graduates to describe the

basic utility of a transistor, even when they are carrying upwards of

100 million of them in their pockets.

This is particularly distressing in an environment where we as a

nation are consuming public and private resources to get tech talent

to immigrate so we can fulfill industry needs. Because (in part) of

the ever rising standards of living in the emerging economies, this is

becoming more and more difficult: In 1977, 80% of STEM-trained

graduates from India chose to move to the US. By 2013, that

number was 16%. According to the president of Carnegie Mellon

University Subra Suresh, 20% of college graduates in China were

awarded STEM degrees. This is two times the percentage as the EU

and 4.5 times the percentage as the US. Further, only 1.4% of all college

graduates in the US are STEM women.1 How can this be so during a

time when demand clearly outstrips supply as evidenced by starting

salaries for newly-graduated engineers? I believe that popular media

(The Big Bang Theory, Fangasm, King of the Nerds, etc) is partially to

blame by painting a nerdy and pedantic picture of those that have

such proclivities, a poison pill for an impressionable teen socialite. Of

course, this is a situation of our own making (these shows wouldn't

be popular if they weren't reinforcing popular stereotypes). Which is

all the more reason to expose a contrary, and profoundly more


accurate, view. And while efforts such as robotics clubs, maker

spaces and access to graphical programming tools are laudable,

these opportunities are generally utilized by those who need no

convincing to pursue a career in technology. The challenge is to light

a spark in those that have no such predisposition, or are reticent to

“come out” for fear of being stigmatized. As proposed by W.B. Yeats

- “Education is not filling buckets; it is lighting fires”. Or in the words

of French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery - “If you want to build a

ship, don’t gather people to collect wood and don’t assign them

tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the immensity of

the sea.” What we have is not a crisis of content, but rather a crisis

of commitment.

Ignorance fuels trepidation, and trepidation has the potential to

drive poor public policy. At a time when the pace of technological

advancement is accelerating (in no small part due to globalization),

we simply cannot afford to bear that burden. Career path aside, who

wouldn't benefit from basic knowledge of the construction of a

computer? As the person responsible for IT services in my

household, this would indeed be a welcome development (no

disrespect intended to any family members reading this), a

sentiment very likely echoed by IT professionals.

The perceived promise (or fear!) of technology is largely about

context. While we have command of some utterly terrifying

extinction-event-capabilities, one would be hard-pressed to make a

convincing argument that technology in aggregate has been a bad

thing. Particularly considering the impossibly minuscule time span

I’ve been on this Earth, the fact that my life has become

immeasurably better due to advances in health care, transportation,

communication, and so on is nothing short of extraordinary, but this

context is lost on an 18-year-old that has taken all of these things for

granted. How is one to long for the ocean when they’ve never left

the desert? When asked what benefit of the space program would

justify its enormous cost, Neil Armstrong told the story of his first

view of low-earth orbit where he could see first-hand the thickness

of the atmosphere relative to the size of the earth and the reaches

of outer space. From the ground, the atmosphere appears infinite,

but from low earth orbit it appears as thin as paper. The benefit is a

more complete perspective, a gift that allows us to know our reality

as it is and not what we wish is to be.

For all of these reasons, I propose a fundamentally different

approach to address these failings. I propose a tech-ed curriculum


• Clearly and succinctly delivers a layman's picture of the

fundamental building blocks of tech gadgets from the bottom

up, concurrently providing foundational knowledge as required

• Illustrates the big picture lifecycle of such devices with tie-ins

to career paths that require a diverse mix of both technical

and non-technical acumen

• Imparts a sense of wonder and context by traversing the

spectacular history and promising future of technology

• Promotes engagement by focusing on interaction over lecture

and concepts over rigor

• Addresses the “nerd” stigma by exposing the more complete

picture of what it takes to succeed in a tech career – creativity,

communication skills, etc

• Explains that there are new formulas for success for

passionate and talented individuals that didn't exist when they

started middle school

• Incites a keen interest in an engineering career by showing

that it promises a lifetime of discovery and accomplishment,

and not just for geeky cave-dwellers

• Makes a technology career more accessible by decomposing

seemingly abstruse concepts into easily digestible pieces,

shining some light inside the black boxes

• Provides a counterpoint to the popularized technology-driven

dystopia, where the robots are evil, computers turn against us,

and aliens are universally obsessed with humanity's


• Presents the material in a fashion that captivates even those

that are constantly drinking from the multimedia fire hose

through innovative captive-audience marketing.

I'll be the first to admit faithfully conforming to the popular

stereotype – girls were an afterthought until college, fashion and

hygiene were secondary to figuring out that last little bug, yada

yada yada. But over the years I realized that my talents lie not so

much in the trenches of RF circuit design, but as one that organizes

and inspires, and have come to realize those skills are important too

(as all those in between). This combination of hard and soft skills has

been and will continue to be a powerful innovation catalyst; the

passion is palpable, and the drive to solve problems nothing short of

extraordinary, in such places as silicon valley, Boulder and Boston.

Many of these innovators have not pursued (probably for very good

reasons) an engineering career, but they ALL have taken the

frightening leap of faith into the black box, and come away with the

realization that “Hey, I can do this!”. Imagine what could be

achieved if that realization was a fundamental component of every

incipient career.

As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous and

indispensable, these stereotypes become more and more

anachronistic. But we all know cultural change occurs glacially,

whereas technological change occurs at the speed of light, and it

doesn't take an engineering degree to know which one is faster.

Tony Dobaj

ET at large

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