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Tinkering Toward a Better Future

As teenagers in India, my friends and I developed our opinions of America by corresponding with pen pals in the United States. We were convinced that America led the world in science and engineering because our pen pals worked on their fathers’ cars. They also built radio-controlled airplanes and seemed to endlessly tinker with every technology available to them. My father, who earned his Masters in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, bolstered this belief, describing his three years working in bridge design and construction prior to returning to India.

I arrived in the U.S. in 1978 with $20 in my pocket, a high school diploma and an eagerness for the “hands-on” opportunities ahead. I wanted to see the wonders of engineering such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the Empire State Building. My goal was to work as an engineer in an informal atmosphere that nourished innovation and autonomous thinking. I wanted to experience the American system of promoting innovation.

To meet the challenges of today’s changing world, I believe it is appropriate to consider the advantages of those tinkering days, when engineering was a vocation that seemed uniquely suited to Americans. The U.S. achieved great things through its mid-century engineering and technology education, and the critical infrastructure challenges we face now suggest we could learn from those days.

The infrastructure my father admired in the 1950s needs to be re-built. However, this time around we face immense sustainability challenges given the global growth that has occurred over the past 60 years. The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and the technology and engineering challenges ahead are legion. How do we deal with the increasing strain that population and economic growth is placing on our dwindling natural resources? Can we expect to meet the needs of society by solely relying on replicating and extending existing technologies?

Evidence of the strain that society is placing on our resources is readily apparent: rising prices for copper, steel and other critical materials; the dramatic reduction in output of the Pemex Canatrell oil field in Mexico, one of the largest in the world; and limitations in city-scale waste disposal.

It is clear that we must develop new models and infrastructures that meet our needs with less impact on natural resources. And I believe that the time has come to return to the “old-school engineering” my friends and I admired in our youth, but this time integrating information technology to address the new and vexing sustainability challenges.

In order to address our global sustainability challenges, we must train students in the U.S. to recover that “hands-on” skill. Five years ago, when my eldest son was signing up for elective courses in high school, I asked him to take woodworking and metal working, as I believe the problem-solving skills are useful in future endeavors.

Unfortunately, I cannot advise my younger son to do the same today since these “hands-on” classes are no longer offered. Similarly, in the junior colleges the vocational classes such as machine technology are slowly ebbing away.

I believe we must rebuild the vocational skills to instantiate the “smart and sustainable” infrastructure. Furthermore, while we are developing technologies, we lack the multi-disciplinary workforce needed to leverage those new technologies. For example, do we have the workforce necessary to gather insights based on data collected from thousands of sensors embedded in infrastructure – a vision for our future? Engineers with multi-disciplinary skills, a combination of mechanical engineering and computer science as an example, are required to develop the automation that enables us to gather meaningful insight from billions of points of data and develop a course of action.

This September President Obama launched “Change the Equation,” a partnership with members of the business community to seek new ways to keep American students competitive in a technology-centered future. And companies like HP are making substantial investments in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. However, more needs to be done.

The work ahead of us to develop the next, improved wave of science and engineering cannot be fulfilled by importing talent from overseas. Instead, our informal, “no barrier” culture and our “hands-on” attitude of the past can be our future, by allowing students to tinker from early on in life, while promoting physical, energy and information technologies. This new wave of American tinkerers will scale their ideas globally using social networking tools unlike my American friends in the 70s who had to write to me by snail mail.

Chandrakant Patel is an HP Senior Fellow and director of the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Laboratory at HP Labs and holds more than 100 U.S. patents. Patel shares more about his insights into innovation here.

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8 thoughts on “Tinkering Toward a Better Future

  1. I agree with Mr. Patel. We do have an age where our children have not been taught or encouraged to “tinker” and build on their own. Many of the fine skills that I gained 50 years ago or more in elementary school and high schoo, such as wood shop, and metal working, while also studying, history, civics,government, science and math have been quietly replaced with more attractive courses such as filmmaking, and the like. As an Engineer, I still rely heavily on my ability to understand how things are put together, to be able to imagine in my mind the steps to solve a physical problem, to formulated a locical set of steps for a study or a plan of attack to either solve a field problem or instruct others to solve a problem. I worked with my sons to enjoy many of these activities,as see in them the same ability to solve problems and to be unafraid to work with one’s hand as well as one’s mind. But also, as an engineer, I see many new and younger engineers who do not have any practical understanding of the very esoteric subjects they studied in school and a limited ability to apply them. It may be great if a young engineer who came out of school with a straight A average to cook up a solution to a problem from a technical standpoint, but he is worth less to a company than the “C” average engineer who had to struggle all the way through school, who learned perseverance and probably worked in a shop to be able to detail that same solution so a laborer or trades person can actually properly install the solution in thefield. The dreamers cannot all dream through the computer, they have to be able to work with the tools they want others to use to change the world. They have to be practical as well as be dreamers! They have to have an appreciation and understanding for the common problems encountered everyday and the average individuals’ efforts to solve them. There would be nothing better than to have a young student walk away from his computer model and go out in the field and actually measure the streambed, the rail system, or the bed of road and see the infrastructure problems first hand before going back to the table any then taking that better understanding and apply it to future solutions. Scientists, engineers, and technicians of today and of the future must have a practical understanding and appreciation of the physical nature of the elements and products they are dealing with and an appreciation of the limitations of the products as well as inherent costs to make changes. I would encourage the education systems within the country to get back to basics, to allow our children to “tinker” not only to build advanced ideas, but to restablish the “shops’ and practical classes of yesterday that gave everyone a foundation of understanding.

  2. The day my husband relinquished responsibility of car maintainance and I was in charge (with a limited budget) was the day I began my engineering education. I stood looking down at the engine that wouldn’t start (at least I had managed to get the hood raised) and had not one tiny clue of where to begin. I wiggled anything that would move, but that did nothing. I spent hours jiggling things, too afraid to do anthing else. Finally I asked for help and learned how to go about solving a problem. The problem stemmed from one of three things: lack of spark, lack of fuel, or lack of vacumm. There were clues here and I could begin to retire possible failure modes with the correct tests. What an interesting puzzle, so I understand what you mean, Mr. Patel. Exploration and hands on problem-solving are very absorbing to learn.

  3. I can only echo Mr. Patel’s article and Mr. Mason’s comment. Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with my younger son (10) who excitedly told me that they were having a ‘bridge building’ competition at school. After getting over a moment of incredible nostalgia (lasting several minutes during which I was near catatonic), his excitement, which was quite contagious, seeped over me. For several minutes we discussed his project. Reminiscent of ‘old times’ they were given a set of materials, each of which had a cost, and the objective to span a gorge. We got into discussing the project. The longer we discussed it, the greater the separation between us grew. I asked how his team was putting together the concept for the build, what bridge ‘types’ were they considering? He looked at me in confusion. They had already ‘built’ ‘many’ bridges. Wow, I thought, this project must have been going on quite some time. No, they had just started. And so it went, until it dawned on me, this exercise was being conducted using a simulation tool on the computer. I tried to hide my disappointment particularly given what I felt was missing in the exercise. There was no tinkering, there was no build. Worst of all, because of this, there was little or no thought going into generating a design and a solution. There was not concept, no architecture, no discussion, or debate on alternatives. Resources, once used were still available, costs were never really incurred. It was all pure trial and error throwing things up on the screen and just as quickly deleting them and throwing up something else. Now, before going on, I will say that I love computers and computing power. They liberate the mind from the tedium of mind boggling repetitive calculations. What is lost, however, when they take over the tinkering and actually building things is creativity, imagination and thought, as well as the understanding of how things fit together and work. This would all be somewhat benign if it did not seem to reflect my experience as an educator (in engineering systems and organizational management) and as a consultant. Ever more frequently does it seem to me that people are looking for a simulation or model; not to use to test a hypothesis or an idea, but in which they can randomly play and seek a solution to a problem. More recently I had a request by a senior manager for a model that would ‘give a solution on where to allocate resources’; obviating even the virtual tinkering. Discussions with students, and ironically even the practitioners with whom I work, about concept, architecture, design, hypotheses and approach evoke the same confused look that they did with my son. The loss of tinkering and building things, anything, affects not the quality of menial capabilities; it affects how we think about problems and how we go about solving them. It seems to affect our ability to build the models (cognitive and virtual) that help support our understanding of what can be done and limits our creative capabilities to the axioms and rules of models that have been built.

  4. Great article! This is why I am supporting Spark, the only nationwide non-profit Empowering Youth with Real-World Opportunities…

  5. While I agree wholly with the comments above I must disagree with Mr. Mason on one point.
    Although it’s true that today young students might be inclined to do something more ‘attractive’, such as filmmaking, vs. getting their hands dirty with the more physical pursuit of engineering, his comment frames this in a very negative perspective.

    As a professor at an art college, where students pursue activities such as filmmaking, I can report first hand that art school is about the dual act of thinking & producing. Our students are taught to conceive a project and then set about making it manifest. Wether this is through the celluloid of film, the paint of painting, the metals & woods of sculpture, or the circuitry of electronics, art students work with their hands & minds, and are consummate, constant tinkerers.
    Add to this that we have one of the countries oldest and foremost art & technology departments, complete with electronic and kinetic fabrication studios, and what we witness is that not only can young students do the real work of engineering but also bring to it the creative thinking of artists. In fact in recent years the engineering community has started to take note of the rise of the Hacking/Making community and it’s novel & unique approaches to engineering problems and their solutions.

    So while I too would like to see every student take shop class, do not discount those who elect other things like filmmaking. Because the creative problem solving of the arts are skills for life and which if needed can be applied to many other areas, including engineering. And if anyone is going to engineer the solutions for a challenging future, it will be the creative thinkers of all disciplines.

    Robb Drinkwater
    The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

  6. When I came to this country 23 yrs ago, I was awe struck by the importance placed on experience and multitalented workforce. To me its was wonderful that you could be a CEO and yet know how to’s around the household. Over the years, as my children are growing up, the emphasis has shifted back to academics and the importance on grades and alphabets behind your name!! Everything I liked about schooling in US is changing and I was thrilled to hear Mr.Patel vocalize my feeling at a recent gathering. I couldn’t agree more with Mr.Patel’s views. Thank you

  7. Reading that makes me want to go out and build dams and mini cities by the brook in my village again…I think the world (with this frame of mind) is going to stumble upon a major breakthrough that will change lives forever…

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