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Friday, September 6, 2013

Unions are an engineers BEST friend

    The other day as I drove to work, I saw a bumper sticker that read, "Thank the unions for the 5 day work week".   After writing my last blog on education, I thought about it more and thought as an engineer I should thank the unions for their work because in my mind they are the best friend engineers ever had.

    Not that engineers belong to unions (I don't), but that because of the tireless efforts of union bosses, engineers have never had more more work to do.  You might say unions have been at the center of most of our technological advances in our world.  After all, had it not been for unions demanding higher and higher pay, more time off, more sick days, earlier retirement with higher payouts, restrictions on who can be fired or laid-off when the economy is down (etc. etc etc.) we would not have robots and other automatic machinery that run our assembly lines today.   These machines are not cheap to design or build, but when the cost of human effort reaches a certain cost-effectiveness point, the engineers get called and the technology is advanced.  The machines are cost-effective because they don't call in sick, they don't leave early on Friday, they don't retire, the don't get tired, the don't get hung-over during the weekend and they NEVER do a half-ass job.  See any automaker today and you see robots welding, lifting parts, moving them from one end of the factor to another, painting, bolting and even inspecting the work done.

   And this is not just in the auto-industry either.  Take the following examples:
  • The electrical meter reading job.  No longer do you see men/women walking from house to house to read your electrical or gas meters.  Now replaced with "smart meters" they can be read from satellite or from the radio tower miles away.   
  • The delivery service has been automated to with boxes outfitted with RF decoders and bar-code scanners to sort and move boxes and letters to their destinations.  
  • Automated bank tellers.  Yes,   those pesky ATM machines that our president so hates (blames for high unemployment) that handle most of our banking needs from getting cash, to making deposits, to paying bills and transferring money.   
  • Land surveyors who used to work in teams of 2 now have GPS and laser equipment to help them do their work alone.
  • Grocery stores now have automated lines allowing customers to check out themselves without the need of a store clerk.
  • Tollway booths can be reduced thanks to wi-fi systems that allow drivers to wiz through them and charge their credit cards automatically rather than wait in long lines to pay a person money

      And the list goes on and on...

     All of these have been created largely in response to union demands.  You might even say the unions "demanded" these technological marvels be created

So, here's one engineer who would like to say "Thank you" to all the union bosses out there that have made my job in high demand.  Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Do the Math!

    The phrase "Do the math!" implies that the solution to a problem  is a logical one that cannot be debated.  Unless you are being taught Common-Core mathematics in which 3x4 could be 11, 3x4 will ALWAYS be 12.  (But that is another topic for another day)  It's irrefutable on all levels.

    Our country is falling behind other countries in educating its children despite our teachers, books and classrooms being second to none.  On a recent list of industrialized nations, the US placed 19th and 20th respectively in math and science scores. Many people point to external issues like poverty, drug abuse, single-parent-homes as the culprits. And, yes, while these are indeed factors plaguing many of our children, I don't believe that they are that much worse in other countries as well.  I have to believe that their kids have the same amount of problems as our kids and that drugs are not an American-only problem.

   The problem is QUANTITY.... not QUALITY

    I find it interesting ( and frustrating ) that the same people who often point to the fact that we are falling behind in education when compared to "other countries" never want to point out what these "other countries" might be doing better than we are doing.  Instead, it's always about poverty, drugs, family issues or attracting better, more qualified teachers with higher pay (despite the fact our teachers are paid much better than other countries already when you consider their hourly wage).  They are always focusing on the quality of our education and never the quantity of it.  Frankly, I believe that 80% (no data here.. just my experience with my kids teachers) are good and decent teachers who work hard. I think our schools provide decent books and materials to teach with as well.   Yes of course these areas must always be considered and improved (like a knife that gets dull with use must be sharpened every now and then), but these areas are by far not the biggest hindrance to improving our kids education.

Let's compare us to the schools in Germany for instance.

      Translated it means that for every 2 years a kid goes to school in Germany our kids would have to go 3 years to get the same amount of education (also note, Germany is not sending their kids to school the most out all developed nations.  That award goes to China with its astounding 260 days per year attendance.  See below for ranked listing of countries and days of school they expect.

    No matter how good you think your kid's school or teachers are, NOTHING can make up for a 46% difference.  Also, until you do fix this issue, all your other fixes will have little or no impact or as we put it in business -- Return On Investment.   Changing books, curriculum, computers will show no improvement because this problem is your biggest detractor.  In my company we refer to this as being "the biggest pole in the tent" which in effect means you can shorten all the other poles in the tent. But from the outside, the tent is still going to be unchanged because the "longest pole" is still holding everything up.

    So how can we fix this?

1- Reduce Summer Vacation (and go to year-round school)
    While many countries still offer a form of "summer vacation" ours is by far the most generous (example: Great Britain has a break from mid-July to the end of August) and gives our children 2-3 months (10-12 weeks off).  This was originally needed when our country was centered on agriculture and children were a needed resource on the farm during the summer.  But now, even in rural America children are needed less in the fields due to advancements in farm machinery and this ancient-leftover can be done away with.  And this isn't the only reason to do reduce summer vacation either.  Now with youth unemployment at over 50% in the summer (because we out-price them with minimum-wage-laws) youth crime sky-rockets in the summer because many youth have nothing to do and no parents at home to provide guidance during the day and had they been in school longer they would be less likely to get into trouble.  A third reason for going to a year-round school is that it would remove the wasted time spent by teachers at the beginning of every school year going over old material to refresh the students minds who have forgotten much of what was taught the prior year.  Like a fly-wheel that is used to keep an engine running smoothly so also a year-round-school will keep our children's minds going on an even keel rather than the constant starting and stopping we put them through today.

2 - Lengthen the school day

    Like mentioned already, we are running a time deficit of 46% every school day to our German counterparts.  Doing the math, 6 hours x 46% equals 3 hours.   We could make up the difference therefore by extending the school day 3 hours each day.  This would allow teachers to keep their coveted summer vacation benefit and help education. But it would also most likely impact after school activities like sports, music and drama which fill the 3-6 time-slot currently.  Many parents and students will undoubtedly scream at the thought of losing this time even though many parents at the same time cry for better education (go figure).  Also students who want to work after school to earn money will be unable to as well.

3 - Flipping the classroom

    This was mentioned in a "60 Minutes" article highlighting the Kahn Academy (KA) on-line school system in which students get online help for free on subjects ranging from math (elementary all the way up to college calculus), to physics, to chemistry and even economics.  Schools now are being pushed to use KA (hey it's free!) and to change how they teach.  Students using KA will go home and get their lectures on KA and come to school to do assignments in class (thus the name "flipping the classroom).  Teachers no longer lecture the class (or what some call teaching!) and are there to answer questions and help students who struggle and with no more homework (its all class work)

    Sounds like a great idea?

    Before I go on, let me first say I like KA.  I would have loved it as a kid and probably would have gotten further in school at a faster rate.   It's a great concept. Students can replay lecture after lecture until they understand the concepts (something teachers HATE to do in the classroom and most students are unwilling to request them to do as its easier to stay quiet and pretend you understand what is being said).

    So what's wrong with it?

    First of all it's a covert attempt to make up the lost 4 hours each day by putting the work on the students and not on the teachers.  Second it releases the teachers from their first job requirement: educating students.  If KA is doing all the lecturing (and therefore all the educating) then what are we paying teachers to do?   Are we paying them to sit behind their desks and monitor kids progress on computer screens all day and only get involved when their is a "problem"?   The question comes to my mind is: What in heck am I paying you so much money to do then?   Could KA be outfitted with some artificial intelligence capabilities and a voice recognition application like SIRI to do that job as well?

   So schools using KA will be paying their teachers the same amount to do less work, while you kids will be doing more work at home (in fact, your home is now the REAL classroom).   Also, the lectures will be one-size-fits-all with rubber-stamp tests not meant to teach your children how to think, but what to think.  School is not just about sucking in information and regurgitating it out at a later time.   School is about learning how to think for yourself and to question (in ancient Greece, for example, students learned by asking questions of their teacher).

A note to teachers:  You are witnessing the same consequences the workers in the auto-industry experienced over the past 30 or so years.  You are slowly and systematically being replaced with cheaper and more reliable workers (namely computers) because of your unions unwillingness to make changes such as lengthening the school day or the the school year.  Eventually, KA will be able to tailor their curriculum to different learning "types" (thus reducing the occurrence of the need for additional "human intervention") and may also be able to answer kids questions automatically.  In my opinion, you are pricing yourselves out of a job.
Why not home-school?

    One thing not brought up in the "60 Minutes" article however (I am sure it was a simple over-sight)  was that if your child can be taught complex subjects like math, science, history, economics, chemistry etc over a computer at home..  why send your kids to school at all?   Often the excuse for not home-schooling is "I don't think I can teach complex subjects", but now with KA, that excuse no longer applies.   After all if it's good enough for schools to use... it should be good enough at home too?   (and as an added benefit your kids will get more than 180 days a year of education to boot)



Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Who's your daddy?

    A common phrase used on basketball courts and other sport arenas is " Who's your daddy? "
I am not sure of the phases beginnings but it is often used as a put down to an opponent that you have just scored on.  (it refers to the idea that a daddy "whips their boys butt" and therefore the person who just scored on you is now "your daddy").
    Recently however a 4th grade class in Skoki Illinois was taught the answer to that question is: The Government.   A father of a child in this class was upset when he saw a lesson plan come home from his school which compared government to that of a parent and that the country is your "family" that it takes care of.

   If you find this hard to believe what the following video:

    If this kind of nonsense does not get stopped soon and we don't confront this wrong-headed thinking with our kids, then we will truly find our government in our face telling all of us someday: "WHO'S YOUR DADDY?"