If Americans won’t learn about their computers, what hope is there to get them interested in STEM?

Before the current rage for encouraging women and dark-skinned Americans to take up dreary STEM majors and jobs there was a rage for encouraging all Americans, regardless of gender ID or skin color, to toil in the sci-tech mines.

I’m wondering if we have objective evidence of the futility of these efforts from the observed complete lack of interest of Americans in how everyday machines work.

What’s the greatest technological advance that has happened within a middle-aged American’s lifetime? As a computer programmer, I’m going to argue that it is the realization in silicon of the ideas of Alonzo Church, Emil Post, and Alan Turing. These machines are readily available to most Americans: the notebook computer, the desktop computer, the smartphone (plus hundreds of others strewn around the house and car, but they are tougher to poke at). There are great free online tutorials explaining every aspect of these machines from the sandy beach up. But how many people voluntarily learn about wafer fabrication? About transistors and digital logic? About machine language and compilers? About operating systems? To a first approximation, nobody cares. If Americans don’t care about this machine that has transformed their lives, why would it work to exhort them to care about more esoteric subjects?

Separately, I’m wondering if we can measure a falling curiosity about how automobiles work. Back in the 1970s I remember that a lot of people were interested to learn about the cycles of a four-stroke engine, the mechanisms within the transmission, steering, and brakes of a car, etc. Bookstores featured books on these subjects reasonably prominently and these were separate from the practical “here’s how you can fix it yourself” books. I wonder if today’s Honda Accord owner has the same level of knowledge about the vehicle that the average Chevrolet Nova owner had back in the 1970s (and what a great car the Nova was!).

Readers: if the building blocks of computers and computer networking aren’t interesting enough for people to crack a book or browse a web page on the subject, what hope is there to increase the number of Americans interested in the building blocks of other stuff?

 

15 Comments »

  1. Tom

    October 8, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

    1

    Back in the 70s you could look under the hood and actually see the parts that made the car run. It was also relatively easy to work on them. As for electronics, the parts were also visible. It is no longer easy to do either and the new electronics are all just a couple of surface mounted chips. Ever try to solder a surface mounted chip by hand?

    HealthKit let you build your own stuff. They have gone the way of the dinosaurs along with piece parts at Radio Shack. Actually both barely still exist but not as before.

    Actually most program development environments are available for free and you can write you own apps. But there are so many already there you can probably find one that does what you want. Besides it takes time and we now want instant gratification.

  2. Neal

    October 8, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

    2

    Setting aside that “observed complete lack of interest of Americans in how everyday machines work” is probably a bit hyperbolic, even 0% of Americans leaves room for a large, vibrant, and growing community who are interested in how stuff works and who could have an outsized impact on technology development.

  3. Jim Howard

    October 8, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

    3

    my perception is diametrically opposite to this article. Lots and lots and lots of people play with the raspberry pie, hot rod their cars, build airplanes, write software for their webpage or for their job.

    I worked as software developer for 20 years and enjoyed, as did almost all of my peers.

    This sounds more like a Boston problem then a national problem.

  4. An observer

    October 8, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

    4

    > Separately, I’m wondering if we can measure a falling curiosity about how automobiles work.

    Perhaps, but there may be other factors at work:

    • Today’s cars and trucks are more reliable and rarely need mechanical repairs or adjustments like those formerly done by home mechanics or at service stations.

    Materials and manufacturing techniques have improved, and demands for better fuel economy and lower emissions have eliminated maintenance-intensive parts like carburators and distributors. Engines and transmissions routinely last the life of the vehicle, with no servicing other than fluid and filter changes.

    When vehicles do malfunction, diagnosis involves interrogating on-board computers or using step-by-step troubleshooting procedures developed by the automaker, and repair typically means replacing a faulty assembly with a new one.

    For nearly all vehicle owners, and even for many technicians, time spent learning automotive theory no longer has a practical return on investment. It may be intellectually satisfying to know how the transaxle works in a Prius, but even if you spend your entire career working on Toyota cars, you may never open the case on one.

    • Interested readers are meeting their information needs in ways that don’t show up on bookstore shelves. For slow-moving, specialized titles, it’s hard for physical stores to compete in the era of Amazon Prime, and many topics are covered better by online sources, anyway.

    Some of the books still exist. Bosch offers their Automotive Handbook, for example, and with Springer-Verlag, a series of in-depth books on automotive engineering, with up-to-date information on subjects like adaptive cruise control. I was a bit disappointed that the one on Diesel engine controls didn’t explain how VW cheated, though.

    Other titles have vanished, and for good reason: if you want an overview of gasoline engines, that’s now on Wikipedia or howstuffworks.com, and if you are trying to make a repair, why buy a generic Chilton or Haynes guide that might not cover your vehicle, when you can subscribe for $15 or $20 and read the complete factory service manual, specific to your model year, with the latest bulletins?

    The same is true in other fields. After 19 editions, the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy is no longer in print; it’s free on their website and as Android and iPhone apps. The Apple Technical Library, once published by Addison-Wesley, is long gone; the Mac and iPhone developer documentation is as close as pressing ⇧⌘0 in Xcode, and printed books would be obsolete by the time they reached the shelves.

  5. J. Peterson

    October 8, 2017 @ 5:29 pm

    5

    As others have noted, the books Phil is missing have migrated to various web resources. Stop by Hackaday or a Maker Faire and you’ll find all sorts of communities more vibrant than the ones Phil recalls from the ’70s.

    @Tom: People routinely solder surface mount chips “by hand”. The trick is using solder paste and a toaster oven or electric skillet.

  6. chopin

    October 8, 2017 @ 8:14 pm

    6

    Hey Phil,

    What career path do you recommend for an engineer? I’ve slowly realized that the STEM path I’ve taken (B.S. in engineering, currently working as a software engineering) is indeed quite dreary and a dead-end. I spend most of my work time dealing with spaghetti code and engineers with poor social skills, and it seems like that’s the case for roughly 90%+ of the tech jobs out there. I’m 28, so I feel like I can still make a drastic career move without too much difficulty.

    Thanks for any ideas!

  7. LesE

    October 8, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

    7

    Yes, the average Nova owner *had* to know more about those vehicles…. and don’t get me started about Vegas.

    Somewhere I ran across a similar discussion about electric motors. Count how many electric motors are in your car (fans, blowers, seats, pumps) and the number is pretty large. Surely the same argument can be made- they’re ubiquitous, and required, so a kid who specializes in electric motors should be sure to get ahead?

  8. Reed Beck

    October 9, 2017 @ 12:32 am

    8

    Yes, a quick Google of “Raspberry Pi” or “Arduino” makes it obvious that either nobody cares about computers OR that you are growing old and out-of-touch.

  9. lion

    October 9, 2017 @ 2:36 pm

    9

    It’s more formal nowadays. They now want the degree, do what they’re told in a formal environment, & always get money from it, but neither do they want do anything as a hobby anymore nor can you get a job from a doing a hobby.

  10. Pavel

    October 10, 2017 @ 3:38 am

    10

    STEM education could be very useful in North America and Europe if we add a couple of courses.
    1. Chinese Language and culture
    2. East Indian Languages and culture
    3. How to set up your own sweat shop in a developing country

    These will make STEM degrees more valuable since software will be done in India and hardware in China, so the future require skills will be in setting up sweatshops and getting them up and running to produce products at the lowest possible cost. In North America and Europe only sales and marketing will remain. The STEM education combined with the language and cultural skills to be able to communicate with the work forces directly producing the software and hardware will be useful to moving what ever production and design is left over to China and India. Management will need some STEM graduates with useful language and cultural skills, the rest of the STEM graduates can be thrown away like an old rag.

  11. Anonymous

    October 10, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    11

    Pavel,
    Your assumption seems to be common sense but how does it tie with fact that companies are importing hundreds of thousands of HB1s, paying them 80 to 90 % of tech market salary which is 2 times above average wage in the USA and after HB1s converted to permanent residency they recieve market wage? I am not saying that you are wrong, this could be how corporations react to regulation and integration with offshore as well as forced hiring practices, and at some point tech positions at corporation as new exclusive club with some uncontested space for old elites. But I clearly recall corporate disaster that was caused by Bill Clinton time push to hire herds of math and science illitirates without problem solving and reasoning skills for tech positions, not just few distant relatives of board memebrs in management positions. I would not rule out that outsourcing is part of US foreign policy either.
    On this post topic. There are many compartmenalized tech enthusiasts groups, they may be smaller perrcentage of population or have less visibility than similar gropus had 50 years ago, but toal number of nerds is probably rising. Hobbyst are less common because main job taking more time and crouded or bottle-necked commute takes the rest.

  12. Pavel

    October 10, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

    12

    The import of HB1s is just the current skilled and cheaper labor force required to move the current systems into the cloud and etc. Eventually they will no longer be required when it is all controlled from India.

    Quote from Article
    https://qz.com/901292/indian-it-firms-like-wipro-tcs-and-infosys-have-been-preparing-for-changes-in-h1b-visa-laws-and-donald-trumps-america-for-several-years/
    “Over the last few years, Indian IT companies have also increasingly veered away from labor-intensive projects to more hi-tech virtual needs, such as cloud computing, automation, and artificial intelligence.”

    The top sponsor of H1Bs is also Infosys, which is heavily involved in banking software, I wonder how many backdoors Infosys has into the US banks?

    AI or applied control systems, signal processing, fuzzy logic and neural networks for those of us who really know what AI is, will replace even more of the workforce. The only safe middle class jobs will be in government, which will slowly go bankrupt. There will be a technocratic elite running the companies (i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Google, Boeing, Lockheed, SpaceX and etc), but this is only a part of the total STEM degree holders, maybe 20% to 30% of all engineering graduates. The rest will be no longer required by the new economy.

    The compartmenalized tech enthusiasts groups (aka Maker and open source movement) in the US, is one of the bright spots and maybe a good example of how society can function better, but it still depends on cheap 3D printers, CNC machines, electronic parts, PCBs and etc, most of which are made in China.

    Welcome to Adam’s Smiths invisible hand of capitalism, which will always guide companies to maximize profit, the social cost is irrelevant.

  13. Anonymous

    October 11, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    13

    Intersting perspective. But why would anyone care about labot costs if future IT systems will not be labor intensive? Who needs backdors into banks when all data is freely available to all offshore locations internally. It seema that Indian workers are ethical enough not to abuse this strucutre. Can you say this for all US (or Russian) workers? But the setup is risky of course.
    I can not wait when AI will be able to handle sofware development projects for businesses. That’s the way I wanted to go 25 years ago, but nobody was interested. At this point the move will be detrimental to my career though. But looking at all the systems out there I thik this is still at least few years away. Frankly, if I had enough time or resources I would have converted many of business systems to to AI, elements of which I sometimes add to my software – hate doing not needed free support. MS tried and was not able to write business specific software, Google is doodling even worse in this area. Amazon can not develop decent advertizement business, something that Google aquired. Look around, young nerds from decent colleges all have jobs and some create new businesses.

  14. Deniro

    October 12, 2017 @ 5:34 am

    14

    @LesE: At 16 y/o I rebuilt a ’71 Nova into a hot rod and raced it on street-legal night at New England Dragway. Took it off the road every winter and drove my ’71 Vega.

    @chopin, re dissatisfied 28 y/o software engineer: I was in a similar position at your age working as a software engineer for a large government defense contractor. While I enjoyed studying computer science in undergrad and was a top student, I was merely average at it on the job and lacked the passion of some of my coworkers.

    At 30 y/o, I quit and went to a top 40 MBA program. The MBA got me out of programming and opened up a wide variety of positions across all industries.
    However, due to a couple of layoffs and blown opportunities, the “Great Recession,” crushing competition, and my own aversion to risk, my salary today is exactly what it was in 1998 before I started the MBA.

  15. Pavel

    October 12, 2017 @ 1:13 pm

    15

    @Anonymous: Since the technical labor is required now (at least until all the AI systems are up running) and not in the future, it is only in the companies best interest to minimize the labor costs until they are no longer needed. Why pay somebody between $5k and $10k per month when you can pay $1k per month? STEM workers are just too expensive, this is why the industry and government is encouraging STEM, more workers are required to lower the salaries to increase profit. The IEEE published a good article a couple of years back why the STEM shortage is a myth.

    In Canada, financial data centers are required to be physically located in Canada, I do not know if this is the same in the US. I do not know what security analysis, if any, enterprise financial software companies do if all the work is done in India and companies like Infosys get employees on HB1 to maintain the systems in US and Canada. The workers in India will only be ethical as long as it is in their economic interest, so for now it looks like it is in their economic self interest to make secure software. This will be the same for Russian workers, they will be ethical as long as it is in their economic interest, of course in Russian threats of physical violence can also be used 🙂 In India and China there are so many workers available to do most STEM jobs that the wage goes down basically to the price of basic food and shelter. There are a few STEM positions which require more elaborate thinking and for those the wages are a bit higher.

    Some days I think I am getting too cynical, probably due to my Eastern European background, but then looking at the way the world works, I realize that I still need to be even more cynical.

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