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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Educating students in 2011

On May 14, 2011, Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published an unsettling Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, entitled "Your So-Called Education."  In it they show that roughly 1/2 of all undergraduates learns little or nothing in college, regardless of tuition costs. Never mind, much of the tuition goes to nicer dorms, bigger gyms and other amenities, while education is left behind. Apparently, education is not on top of priorities of the young undergraduate "customers" and their overly protective parents.

I presume that the authors refer mostly to the non-science and non-engineering students, because no engineering student would ever survive learning for just 11-13 hours per week.  This is why practicing engineers make only one-half of one percent of the population in the U.S.  It gets really lonely out there when we talk about rigors of engineering education, while other people stare at us in silence, their eyes saying: "You guys think too much, way too much."

Now, an ever increasing fraction of high school students in the U.S. learns only how to pass the silly multiple-choice tests, so that they are not left behind.  They learn little math, no physics, and almost no chemistry.  After all, some of their accredited and underpaid teachers barely know these subjects as well.  In addition, some of these students do not learn history, geography, and writing in their mother's tongue. Many of the same students then go on to study political science, psychology, business, business administration, international relations, physical education and so on, and sail through more of the similarly easy tests, while entertaining themselves for another four-five years.

Having never learned how to write and think analytically, and synthesize, these students then become managers, politicians and social leaders.  And now the best part:  They turn around and tell the engineering and science professors how and what to teach, or else! They also talk about research, what to work on and how to conduct it.  The amazing thing is that probably 96% of the U.S. population has little idea what research is and cannot distinguish between plain old basic or applied research and a boondoggle. Just look at the pharmaceutical research.

Education seems to be the only service where so many of the customers are all too happy not to get their money's worth.  Such is human nature, but the results are devastating, see the graph below.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

For comparison, next month, most of the 125 B.S. graduates from my Petroleum Engineering Department at UT Austin will be making anything from $75,000 to $98,000 a year.   And you do not want to know how much more our MS and PhD students make.

The main reason is that our students actually study 50-60 hours a week and learn a few useful things on the way.  If they don't, they flunk and are eliminated from the program. Because our students work very hard, and are very well prepared, they are attractive to their employers.  In short, our students compete quite successfully in the global employment market for petroleum engineers.

Kudos to our students and kudos to our faculty,  who also work on average twice the nominal 40 hours a week.  I do too.

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