Saturday, October 31, 2009

Does Ireland need more engineers?

Many commentators have stated that we need to increase the number of young people in Ireland choosing to pursue careers involving science and technology, but I don't think it makes sense to force youngsters into a career they don't find interesting.

It is true that many young people choose not to continue studying science at 3rd level because the subject has not been very well taught to them at 2nd level (where they tend to study it whether they want to or not). Many schools are forced to hire science teachers whose primary degree was not in science because the science graduates tend to follow more rewarding careers elsewhere. Also a lack of resources forces many schools to teach the subject from books instead of allowing student to learn by doing enjoyable hands-on experiments. This is something which needs to change.

Most science experiments involve building gadgets which is something most youngsters enjoy. It is also possible to design safe experiments which involve considerable amounts of explosions and objects crashing into each other. These are further aspects which most young people tend to consider an increase in the fun factor. It seems obvious to me that anyone who experiences a good science education will obviously choose to follow a scientific career if possible.

However, I have recently come to a shocking conclusion - not all people poeple are like me!!! To my surprise some young people find accountancy, law and similar subjects to be more interesting than science!!!

When I initially realised this I was disappointed. However, on mature reflection I realise that it is good news that there are youngsters who have this attitude. It is inevitable that we will need some people to count the money and tell us if we need to tighten our belts or not. There will also be times when we need people to sort out our legal affairs. Is it not better to have these jobs done by people who genuinely enjoy what they are doing rather than by someone who is secretly pining for a more interesting job that involves science and technology.

People won't do a good job if they don't love what they do. I know that if the only career options available to me were in accountancy or law, I would probably manage to become competent enough in one of these disciplines to make a living. However, I would certainly not be as enthused by either of these areas of work as I am by my current career and I think this would be reflected in the quality of my work.

It is true that the invention of the internet and the radical advances in ICT technology over the last half century have really transformed the world. Because of these changes, everyone now needs to be familiar with the internet and how to use information technology if they are to realise their true potential. But this does not mean that everyone needs to work in the ICT sector.

This is analagous to what happened in the early part of the 20th century when the invention of the car transformed society in many wealthy countries. Almost everyone in these countries had to learn how to drive if they wanted to be successful, but not everyone was working in the automotive industry. Initially cars were very unreliable and so motorists were well advised to have a knowledge of how to do roadside repairs, but now cars have become so reliable that there is very little need of such expertise any more.

I think that computers have now advanced to the stage that there is no need for specialist knowledge of their inner workings in order to use them successfully.

A few years ago the poor state of camera technology and the multitude of complex incompatible standards meant that engineering students with a good understanding of the technology had an advantage over their colleagues in the humanities faculties with regard to posting videos to the internet. However, the landscape has now changed quite dramatically with the advent of cheap video recording equipment and sites like YouTube taking all of the complexity out of the process. Today the engineering students might be more familiar with the leading edge codecs, but videos attracting most attention on the internet are more likely to have been produced by humanities majors whose knowledge of video technology does not extend much beyond being able to correctly identify the record button on their camera.

I think that we do not need to force people into careers in the science and technology sector if this is not what they want. However, it is important that we should ensure that all students are familiar with how to leverage information technology for their field of work. For example, students of literature will inevitably need to use the internet to build an audience their work and it is important that they should understand how to do this. The publishing market is undergoing a a major transformation right now, so any good creative writing course should include topics such as "building on-line communities" and "understanding creative commons licensing"

Technology education also needs to be moved to an earlier point in the education cycle to reflect the fact that children are using the internet at a younger age than before. For example, most youngsters will be active on social networks before they leave primary education. For this reason most enlightened programs in Relationships and Sexuality should include a module on cyber-bullying.

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