The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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“Toward More Bird-Like Flight: Thinking Outside the Box”

A great TEDxNASA talk by someone I’m proud to call my friend and colleague. Al’s talk speaks for itself, so I won’t bother summarizing it here. However, I will add that the ideas in this talk have led to one of the most innovative and exciting things going on at NASA Dryden right now, and I’m not even sure its an official project.

A team of engineers, designers, and machinists, as well as some incoming students from the NASA Aeronautics Academy, are actually going to be building and flying two Horten wing gliders as research-instrumented RPVs here in the high desert. The PDR was yesterday, and what I saw was a design that is smart, lean, and suitable for rapid prototyping.

Al’s approach to project management is Antoine de St. Exupery’s quote personified:

Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

(If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.)

It works. Everyone in that room is inspired; rather than needing to be pushed to work, most have to be pulled back from going too crazy. Decisions are enabled at the lowest level that makes sense, and ideas emerge and mesh at the front lines. This is no small matter either… applying these ideas to wing and propulsion design lead to massive practical fuel savings for the whole aviation industry, and Dryden might be the first to push this envelope and grab some flight data. 

At a time when NASA is being criticized for being a lumbering bureaucracy well past it’s prime, it’s so refreshing to see that grassroots and groundbreaking projects can organically form and even thrive at Dryden when the right people are given enough free rein.

You can read Al Bowers’ own perspective on his blog post for Dryden.

Arne On Teacher Salaries and Standardized Tests

Below is my comment on an article posted to the blog entitled “Arne on Teacher Salaries and Standardized Tests“. There was much in the comment stream about how muchc teachers should make, comparisons to other professions, and the value of an education degree.

As a professional engineer in the process of (voluntarily) transforming into a K-12 educator, I hope I can add a hybrid perspective.

As a aerospace research engineer (federal), I started at $43,500 and advanced to roughly $80,000 in five years. This is not because of some arbitrary euro-centric preference, it is because of simple supply and demand. At the level of STEM understanding required to ensure our national security, economic vigor, modern infrastructure, and quality of life, there are simply not enough young people moving into the ranks to replace those retiring. Engineers, not defined by their degree but by those who can think creatively, rigorously analyze a system, and synthesize new innovations, are in very short supply; the demand for such people in our modern world is very high. I do not think I could say the same about literature. No disrespect intended, as I love literature and fully see its value in society, but the simple fact is that the skillset is not required in as large quantities right now.

I am aware that switching to a career education will probably mean a pay cut of 50-60%. This concerns me, but is not stopping me – I am, alas, a stubborn idealist. But for the general case, consider those who are similarly prepared as I am. Should those well-trained as engineers and scientists have to choose between a world of creative application of their talents, probable advancement, and job security, versus a world of low-pay, advancement and security based solely on tenure, and declining respect and creative freedom? If not, how can we structure education such that this comparison is more favorable? Because that is the comparison being made by graduates versus other professions.

Teaching *is* a profession, and a important one – indeed, the *most* important one, since it feeds all of the others. But it is also a unique one – unlike medicine, law, or engineering, proficiency in the subject matter and theory of practice are not enough to be effective. What gets missed in that analogy is that, while a surgeon with more training and experience will probably perform a better surgery, a teacher with more training and experience will not necessarily prompt better learning. I think we all have personal experiences to attest to that. What is unique about this profession is this: That children learn from people they love. They learn when the material is engaging and relevant. They learn when they can apply their own initiative and correlate it to success. Some of that can be taught, some if it can’t.

There is no way that an education major with a credential in math or science can bring as much content knowledge to the table as I can. Does that make me a better potential teacher? Not necessarily. Not by a long shot.

Teaching is a noble calling because it is the *only* one which directly professionalizes the intersection of people and ideas. This goes above and beyond subject matter competency. We should be reaching out to those in all fields who have these qualities, and incentivizing their consideration of teaching as a profession. Make it *the* selective pathway, an honor; that beyond their excellence in science, math, literature, history, theatre, engineering, or language, they also exhibit the much more in-demand talent than any of these of being able to connect their ideas with people. And then pay them commensurate to the field from which you plucked them.

Can performance in this quality be measured by standardized testing? Not in isolation no, and such a proposition is yet another dangerous deterrent to those in more open fields. But rote subject matter competency *is* important, when combined with the assurance that the student has developed the creative and analytical capacity to apply it. Know the equation – but also write a paragraph on why these quantities are related in this way. Know the scientific principle – but also explain to me what we know about the universe as a result. Know the name of the artistic movement – but also tell the world around you what we as a society failed to learn from it.

Does that require more time and resources? Definitely. But I think it is what is required for an increasingly knowledge-based world, one increasingly dependent on technologies, systems, and social structures which did not exist when the present education system was created. So that also means change, which in turn means both pain and opportunity. But if we fail in this, the whole nation fails. Education is too central a pillar to a strong republic; no such republic can hope to stand long with this pillar strained or broken.

BTR Up for National Award

Aside  Comment

Just linked from Twitter to an article in Harvard Gazette mentioning Boston Teacher Residency as a finalist for the Innovation in American Government award.

“The importance of the Innovations in American Government Award has never been greater,” said Anthony Williams, acting chair of the National Selection Committee. “Government is facing unprecedented challenges, and I think all of us are sanguine to know that there are leaders and programs out there — including these government finalists — that are working to serve and engage our people better.”

Check out the full article for some background and how BTR fits into the metric.