A School for Engineering (part 1 of 2)

Behold, the humble toaster

The problem:

We are surrounded — and confused — by technology. Those who will flourish in the 21st century are people who can understand, and revel in, machinery.

At present, few of our schools connect students to the wonder of technology.

Our schools can lead all kids into the joy of technology — even without being special "technology" schools. If they pursue this right, they also build abilities in other subjects — science, history, math, reading, writing, and thinking.

Putting engineering near the core of a school can help the entire curriculum become more vividly intellectual.


 The Possibility

Unless you're reading this off the grid in the wilds of Alaska, you're surrounded by technology.

We often complain about this: we grumble that mechanical things feel other and alien, that they feel unnatural. We want to return to simplicity, to nature. (Well, at least feel this way!)

But this is stupid. 

Technology is the creation of human minds. It's not alien to us: mechanical objects are human thoughts given form. A gasoline engine is as much a part of Homo Sapiens as a snail's shell is part of it.

Steve Jobs captured this perfectly — as usual!

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is that everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use…. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.

To understand the technology around you is to try on other people's minds. It's to expand yourself. Understanding technology makes us into different people: We become fuller. We sit in the driver's seat. We understand that we're not chess pieces pushed around by machinery — we can take charge of the technology.

A proper engineering curriculum, that is, brings human transformation. 

Kids should understand how toasters work. Kids should understand how computers work. Kids should understand how gasoline engines work. And so on.

Understanding the "made environment" can help students live more fully in the real world.

Engineering: The Magic Is Not Magical

If we don't understand technology, the external world looks like magic. We have no idea how things work. I discovered this recently when I asked some of my high school students how computers work.

"Hard drives," I was told. "Processors. Graphics cards." Blah, blah, blah.

No, I said, these were only the parts of a computer. What about the essentials? What makes a computer think?

They didn't understand what I was talking about. I decided to try another path.

Okay, I said. Does a computer need electricity? Could we build a computer out of, say, Legos, or wood blocks? How about even a simple computer — like a Nintendo, from the 1980s? Could you play Super Mario Brothers on a Nintendo made out of wood and metal?

The answer is yes. In fact, the first computers were entirely mechanical — made of wood and brass, and powered by hand-crank. (Side note: it's really fun to imagine how you could make a Nintendo out of such materials.)

This answer blew my students minds. They saw that they'd never understood computers before — they had thought electricity was, somehow, "magical," that it had the power to "think." In reality, the "thinking" that a Nintendo (or any computer) does comes from the organization of its pieces.

The Renaissance engineer Simon Stevin was enraptured by the ability of scientific understanding to make wondrous things. The secret, he said, was realizing that the wonder came from simple sources which could be perfectly understood. "The magic," he wrote, "is not magical."

Mechanics can be magical. The deepest wonder, though, comes from seeing magic as flowing from mechanical laws.

We need schools that use engineering as a way to encounter wonder. 


Next up: How this could actually look in our school.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA