People find the spark of imagination in all kinds of places
Once upon a time, college was that period in people’s lives when they went off and wandered in different directions until they found themselves. This was especially true in the liberal arts.
I’ve been asked if it can still be that way in tech too, and I think it can. But being in administration, I necessarily bring a different viewpoint to the question. Today, there’s pressure to get students through the system—the state wants to see that there’s an investment in these kids to graduate in a timely manner. I think the liberal arts people here would say the same. It’s just the times.
But this is one reason I think it would be ideal to help kids learn about their different career options when they’re in high school, so when they come to college, they have a more direct path. They don’t lose time changing course.
And I think we are doing a lot of things in a lot of schools to promote that. But to say that we’re there is wrong. I’m actually of the belief that we’ll always be wrong in some ways. There are some societies that want to give tests to high school sophomores or juniors—tests that say whether they’re going to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or tradesmen. I don’t buy that for everybody. I understand the efficiency of it, but I also think that part of what’s made this country great is that we allow people to be late bloomers. We allow people to change careers.
To be more efficient at what we’re doing is a good thing—as long as we allow points for people to jump out of that efficiency. Design itself is not a perfectly efficient process. The spark of imagination can be given by all kinds of things.
And people find themselves. People find themselves in the technical professions all the time. You give a student a project as a freshman, you give him or her a project as a sophomore, a junior, a senior—that same kid will approach it differently as a senior than as a freshman.
And if they don’t, we’ve kind of failed in educating the student. They need to know different methods, too, but also the student has matured. What we want to do is mature them in such a way that we don’t teach the creativity out of them. We want to make them as creative as possible, to enhance their creativity, and to give them a structure to apply it. But not to make every kid the same.
I always tell kids, I spent 10 years as a practicing engineer in the defense industry before I became an academic. And I loved my job, and I was paid well.
So I tell them, “There are jobs that you can enjoy that don’t pay well. There are jobs that pay well that you don’t enjoy. But there are also jobs that pay well that you enjoy.”
Just think about video games—when I was an engineer, I was building parts of an aircraft on the computer, and that was as much fun as playing any video game at home. And I was getting paid to do it. It doesn’t get better than that. If we in higher education can assist students in realizing a career that is more than a job, that they can enjoy, we will have been successful.
Lawrence E. Whitman, Ph.D., P.E., is Dean of the Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock