Wanted: Well-Rounded Students Who Can Think

Georgia Tech’s president defines a role for universities and schools in addressing global economic competition in the flat world by G. Wayne Clough

In Washington Irving’s famous story, Rip Van Winkle inadvertently slept for 20 years. When he awoke, his hometown had changed so dramatically he did not recognize it and had no idea how to fit into this new society.

The story was an allegory for the changes brought about by the industrial revolution. Today we are in the midst of a global economic revolution that is much larger and more dramatic than the industrial revolution, and the pace of change is so fast Rip’s nap need only be a few hours to experience what previously took 20 years.

The sweeping impact of our times has affected all segments of society, universities included. Society’s perception is that universities have not responded to changes, and criticism has been directed at tuition costs, access and willingness to reach out to the community. Yet universities are key if this country is to maintain its leadership as an innovator in the face of competition from emerging global powers such as China and India. Innovation is driven by scientific discovery and the invention of new technologies, which call for a cadre of researchers in science and technology as well as a broader skilled workforce that can make something, literally, of those discoveries and inventions.

The task of producing the science and technology workforce our nation needs begins early in the educational experience. Numerous studies have shown American K-12 students lagging behind their international peers in science and mathematics achievement — only performing in the middle of a pack of industrialized nations tracked by the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study,” issued in mid-December by the National Center for Education Statistics. Even in the earliest elementary years, it is becoming increasingly important that mathematics and science education be expanded with strong, hands-on programs that pique children’s curiosity about how science and technology work.

Alarming Disconnect
Our nation is at risk of falling behind in the global economic competition because too few of our young people are choosing to study fields like engineering and science. A 2005 study by McKinsey & Co. indicated that low-wage countries now are home to 33 million young professionals who are university graduates with up to seven years of work experience, compared to 7.7 million in the United States. Some have called this development a “silent Sputnik” — a crisis that demands a similar strengthening of science and math in American schools as the nation undertook in the late 1950s, but it lacks a seminal event like the launch of the Soviet satellite to raise the alarm.

The 2005-06 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index survey found that while American teenagers are comfortable with rapid technological change and optimistic about the potential for innovation to solve society’s problems, they tend not to be interested in careers in science or technology for themselves. “The relative lack of interest in science and technology-oriented fields is alarming,” said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, in reporting the findings. “We need to do more to make science and technology more attractive to today’s youth.”

Education in science and mathematics is distinguished from many other disciplines in that advanced studies build directly on preparation begun in middle school. The crucial need to strengthen K-12 science and math education has begun to receive focused attention. Both the National Academies’ report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” and the president’s American Competitiveness Initiative call for more and better-prepared math and science teachers in our middle and high schools.

We also must change what we teach our students. If the United States is to compete against lower-cost skilled workforces available in China and India, we must educate a “value-added” workforce that is worth the additional cost because it offers skills that corporations need but cannot get elsewhere.

The same McKenzie study that documented the skilled workforces in other nations also pointed out that while those low-wage young professionals have technical skills, fewer than 15 percent of them have the more sophisticated skills they need to evolve as leaders. Their education may have centered on rote memorization and did not develop their problem-solving or creative-thinking skills. Or they lack language and communication skills. Or they do not have any cross-cultural or teamwork skills. This is where the United States can differentiate its workforce from others. About the same time as the McKenzie study, I participated in a workshop on engineering workforce issues sponsored by the National Science Board, a 24-member advisory body to the president and Congress of which I am a member. The conclusion, reported in the summary notes, was a counterpoint to the McKenzie data: “In addition to analytic skills, which are well provided by the current education systems, companies want engineers with passion, life-long learning skills, systems thinking, an ability to innovate, an ability to work in multicultural environments, an ability to understand the business context of engineering, interdisciplinary skills, communication skills, leadership skills and an ability to change.” Experience tells me many other professions have a similar list of desirable characteristics that companies want beyond knowledge of the subject matter.

However, the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index found American teenagers have an inflated assessment of their problem-solving skills. More than three-fourths considered themselves strong in problem solving when, in fact, a 2005 report from Achieve indicated more than half of college-level educators were dissatisfied with their students’ problem-solving abilities.

Reshape Thinking
At Georgia Tech, our applicants self-select based on an interest in science and technology, and our students arrive already wired and hyperlinked. However, they often are not as proficient as they need to be at valuing or making sense of the information to which they have instant access. Too many do not have depth of understanding of history, social science, literature and philosophy, and they lack skills in critical thinking.

To prepare students for the global marketplace in which they will work and compete, precollegiate and even middle and elementary school education can teach students how to think, rather than just learning facts and formulae. Students should be encouraged to ask questions rather than simply accept at face value whatever they read or see, to figure out what steps might solve a problem, to think about what criteria they might use in deciding whether a statement is true or an idea sound, and to compare and contrast what they are learning with what they already know. Even kindergarten students can learn to distinguish and appreciate the different perspectives of different characters in a simple story and to think about the point of the story.

By the time they reach college, students should be well on their way to knowing how to reason, to compare, to analyze and to define problems as well as to solve them. We want our students to be independent of thought, but at the same time mindful of community. They must learn to see their chosen discipline through the prism of environmental sustainability. They must be able to see technology in its larger social context and understand its human dimensions. They need cross-cultural experiences and a comfort level with diversity. They need teamwork experience and sound oral and written communication skills.

To produce these value-added skills, Georgia Tech has engaged in an ongoing effort to reshape its undergraduate education experience, making it both broader and deeper as well as more flexible and interdisciplinary. In addition to better preparing our students, we believe these changes also make our educational programs more exciting and appealing, attracting more students to the study of the sciences and engineering.

We began a decade ago by revamping our admissions criteria to be more indicative of a well-rounded student. When we began to require computers for all students, we overhauled our core and disciplinary courses to best use the technology. Handouts, assignments, PowerPoint presentations and after-the-fact solutions to homework and test problems are available on course websites, and students post projects and papers for comments from their peers and professors on “wiki” websites that allow for online interaction and collaboration. (Wiki comes from the Hawaiian term “wiki wiki” meaning quick.)

In some courses, student teams meet in designated chat rooms to work on group projects. Beyond giving students experience in online collaboration, the chat rooms preserve a record of the interactions, which students use for future reference and professors use to check student progress and level of participation by each student.

Other changes focused on bringing design work into the earliest stages of architecture and engineering curricula, rather than saving it for advanced courses. This approach involves students in the creative, hands-on, practical, problem-solving aspects of their chosen field right from the start.

We also provided more flexibility for students to customize their education without losing depth. The College of Computing, for example, redefined its undergraduate curriculum around “threads” and “roles.” Students organize their education around two of eight different threads focused on various applications of computing, such as media, computational modeling, human-computer interface or computing platforms.

This approach enables students to both broaden and tailor their education, rather than simply learning stand-ardized, stove-piped programming skills. At the same time, they imagine their future careers and slant their education program toward a particular role — whether an entrepreneur, an innovator or a master practitioner. The goal is to create horizontal connections in ways that make sense, so that graduates provide more value than the basic computer programmers available overseas at lower cost.

In addition to reshaping existing disciplines, Georgia Tech has created new interdisciplinary degree programs. Digital media degrees are offered jointly by the College of Computing and the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. They embrace the university’s widely regarded video gaming program, which uses video-gaming as a medium to model and simulate complex social problems.

Another undertaking has permeated our curricula with a sustainability perspective. Many universities responded to growing environmental challenges by creating special courses and majors, and Georgia Tech has done that as well. However, we also believe environmental sustainability should be part of everyone’s mindset. Our students’ basic education comes through the prism of sustainability, and sustainability is emphasized in their earliest experience with defining and understanding their chosen major.

Georgia Tech also developed a range of other experiences designed to produce the sought-after skills of a value-added workforce. More than 40 percent of our undergraduates now are engaged in substantive research, developing their critical-thinking skills by exploring questions that are ambiguous, require ingenuity to solve and call for them to be resourceful, think outside the box and try new approaches. Students who complete nine academic credit hours of research work during their undergraduate career, take a course in thesis writing and then write a thesis that’s reviewed by two professors receive a special research designation on their transcript.

Leadership Skills
We are also educating citizens of the world who are comfortable with diverse cultures, languages and ways of thinking and problem solving. Almost 40 percent of our students study modern languages, despite no language requirement for any major outside the School of Modern Languages. According to the American Council on Education, about 1 percent of American college students and fewer than 1 percent of engineering students study abroad each year. At Georgia Tech, more than a third of our undergraduates study or work abroad and this number is likely to increase. Georgia Tech has its own full-fledged campus in Metz, France, plus dual-degree agreements with universities in Germany, Mexico, China and Singapore, allowing our engineering students to study abroad without missing a beat. We also provide internship assignments abroad with international corporations.

We offer 17 undergraduate majors with an international designator on the students’ transcripts and diplomas. In addition to the requirements for their major, these students take courses in modern languages, global economics and international affairs. They study or work abroad at least twice and complete a capstone course that interweaves these international experiences together with their major.

As our international education programs have matured, their impact has deepened, reaching beyond the typical study abroad program to assist needy parts of the world. Our students and faculty have undertaken projects to help Angola and Liberia recover from civil war, address sanitation in Brazil, improve the water supply in Honduras and provide community development in Ecuador, to cite a few examples.

Instilling leadership skills in students will provide another value-added characteristic that will help them compete with their international peers. Colleges and universities are beginning to offer structured leadership studies to help students understand the social, political, economic, cultural and ethical dimensions of leadership and develop key skills in communications and teamwork.

Related to this effort is a growing recognition of the value of experiences outside the classroom, especially for developing leadership skills. Colleges and universities increasingly use the term “co-curricular” rather than “extracurricular” to refer to activities outside the classroom that have educational value, and they have become more deliberate about structuring and coordinating these activities to help round out their students’ education.

At Georgia Tech, for example, LEAD — the Leadership Education and Development program — not only offers courses that lead to a certificate in leadership, but also promotes internships that develop leadership skills and coordinates a wide variety of extracurricular activities with a focus on leadership.

At a technological university like Georgia Tech, extracurricular activities also help us stoke students’ creativity and bridge what society has historically seen as a chasm between technology and the liberal arts. Well-developed music and poetry programs are among our efforts to nurture both sides of our students’ brains, helping them make connections across disciplines and learn how to apply and express creativity in different ways.

These enhancements to the educational experience of our students have had measurable benefits. Our graduation rate increased from 66 percent to 78 percent. Our retention rates are at all-time highs, and alumni who have experienced the new approach respond in surveys that it has helped them in their career development.

We also help our faculty cultivate the teaching skills they need for this new academic environment. Our Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning helps graduate students and young faculty develop their skills and works with older faculty to refurbish their skills and incorporate new educational technology effectively. These teaching fellows, as they are called, often develop creative new teaching approaches, which are then incorporated more broadly in our classrooms.

A K-12 Impact
Although Georgia Tech does not have a school of education, we reach out to K-12 institutions to help strengthen their science and mathematics curricula and make these subjects more engaging. At Centennial Place Elementary School, one block from our campus, we worked with the Atlanta Public Schools to design an innovative elementary-level math and science magnet school. We helped plan the curriculum and provide for a higher level of technology than usual. A Tech student is always on hand to keep the technology running and help pupils and teachers use it well.

In suburban Atlanta, we worked in partnership with Rockdale County Public Schools and several businesses to create the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, which is unlike any other high school in the nation. It emphasizes problem-based learning and student research, and integrates application with theory in the teaching of science and math. Every year, all Rockdale Magnet School students undertake long-term research projects in math or science, learning how to use research sources, gather and analyze data and use descriptive statistics. They gain experience in scientific writing and are required to enter their research projects in a year-end school symposium, where they defend their research orally.

Georgia Tech students assist in the classes and serve as mentors for research projects. The high school also has access to Georgia Tech libraries and databases and to interactive online activities with Tech faculty and students. Rockdale students visit the Tech campus for field trips, a year-end banquet and a special summer camp for rising 9th graders.

Georgia Tech also provides online math, science and computing resources for K-12 teachers and brings students and teachers to campus for a wide variety of clubs, enrichment programs, competitions and summer camps. These programs especially target girls and minority students, who studies show are more likely to turn away from science and math at an early age. Tech’s GIFT (Georgia Intern-Fellowships for Teachers) program places high school science and math teachers from across the state in summer fellowships in business or research lab settings to give them firsthand exposure to the real-world application of their subject material. GIFT teachers also meet in groups to share their experiences and learn from each other.

The overarching goal of Georgia Tech’s efforts to reshape its education experience and enrich K-12 science and math education is to build up America’s pipeline of value-added scientists and engineers. However, we have discovered this approach to learning also opens broader career opportunities for engineering and science students. Top professional schools in medicine and law increasingly recruit our students as do a wide range of international corporations. Wall Street increasingly looks to us for “quants,” an abbreviation for a quantitative analyst who operates in a complex environment of mathematical models driven by many variables.

For us, the bottom line is preparing our students not for a particular job — they are likely to hold many in their careers — but for life in a rapidly changing global economy. In validation of our efforts, we received one of the best compliments we have ever gotten from Thomas Friedman, who wrote in his expanded edition of The World is Flat that Georgia Tech knows how to operate in the flat world.

Wayne Clough is president of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Ga. E-mail: wayne.clough@carnegie.gatech.edu