Cling as we might to the old ways, if were honest, we can see some of these changes in ourselves. Nicholas Carr poses the question Is Google Making Us Stupid? in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. Part of his answer is this confession: Im not thinking the way I used to think. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative . . . , and Id spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. . . . Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Those teaching new engineers and operators see these changes in spades.
Students today get their information differently than we did, says Dr. Gerald Cockrell, professor of engineering technology at Indiana State University and president-elect of ISA. They want response almost immediately. They absorb information differently. They dont take notes and dont underline. They want the Cliff Notes presentationquick and to the point.
Venkatasubramanian focuses on what he calls the Google phenomenon. Students today, he says, seem to be losing the ability to think through things deeply or contemplate for a long time. Their solution is to go to Google. If the answers not there, they often dont know what to do. We may be creating a whole generation of folks who look for quick solutions. Theyre used to getting instant responses, and there may be adverse consequences to that. You need some long-term thinkers as well.
Lee Colleges Dyer sees the same effect on his students. What were seeing and fighting is the direct result of the educational system and the onslaught of Google and Wikipedia. [Students] think knowledge is disposable. Why do you need to learn the theory or memorize facts when you can just look it up on Google?
The problem with that, he adds, is that knowledge is not disposable in our industry. If you dont have the knowledge in your head, theres no time to look it up when the process is going bad. I tell students that there are certain things that, if you dont remember them, that lack will make you less efficient and less safe.
However, if the Google phenomenon has created a different breed of learners and presented us with a different set of challenges, theres no going back. The Internet horseand all it implieshas left the barn. The challenge for schools and companies alike is to catch it.
The New Engineering School
This new breed of student also has fostered some striking changes in the way engineering is taught.
Venkatasubramanian says students will still have to go through the fundamentals of math, physics, chemistry and biology, so they understand whats going on, but the courses will change a lotin organization, content, format, and delivery.
They already have in many respects. Cockrell says hes old-fashioned in the sense that he still requires a textbook. Many people just put all this stuff online. The textbook as we know it will probably be something thats on a computer. According to Forbes, by 2019 there will be more online coursework than traditional lectures. Now with the technology, high-speed Internet, simulation and the other things, Im able to do online discussions. Students can see me and I can see them. Ive had students from as far away as Korea.
To foster this distance learning, Cockrell is working on a National Science Foundation grant to prepare sixty modules for technician training that can be done online from anywhere in the world. A lot of time, he says, Economics simply doesnt allow that physical experience. Were forced to go to the students and deliver the content where they are.
The Internet isnt the only driver of this changing curriculum. The new breed of student tends to be more visually oriented. Couple this with the increasing power of simulation technology, and you have a different classroom experience.
Lee Colleges Dyer explains that his advanced classes for new operators are geared to visual learning. We have see-through columns where we run distillation. We vary the heat and other things. Students see what happens when they maintain certain pressures and temperatures. They see that if they dont keep the temperature or pressure right, the process goes off. The visual appeal of this fits this generation.
At Lee and other schools students work with simulators that look just like real process units, which allows them to experience what work would be like in a real plant. The instructor can sabotage a process in real time, explains Dyer. You can do all those things that happen in the real world. Its just like a flight simulator.
Process Operator as Top Gun
That analogy to training pilots popped up frequently in our interviews.
Venkatasubramanian also compares training new engineers with training jet pilots. Look at the operator of an old steam-engine-driven train. He has to do lots of things. He and his cohorts are shoveling coal into the boiler. Theres lots of manual labor involved. The operator of today is still like that steam engineer. Hes trying to get information about whats going on and is involved in a lot of low-level information-gathering and information-processing activities. The operator of 2025 is going to be more like a jet pilot. She will have access to all kinds of data, information and knowledge, and her job will be more about making higher-level decisions on the fly than about information gathering exercises. Shes will get a lot of assistance from the computer and communication systems. She will be a plant pilot. Now the problem is that the courses today are producing mostly engine drivers. How do we produce these pilots?