Education and Innovation interview: Dr Rao

The following interview is with Dr Rao.

Dr Venkat Rao

Venkat Rao is an academically trained engineer who now works as a consultant and writer.
The interview is only six questions, and I’ve not edited much of the interview. His answers are interesting as is his blog. Truly this is an example of a polymath, and it was a pleasure to interview him!

1. Do you feel that the University education system in the USA is
producing graduates for the STEM careers. If so what would you

Mostly, yes. The university system is doing a good job. The problem is that it is far too costly given the expected returns, and is delivered in a waterfall manner: 4 years are supposed to sustain you for 40+ working years. That’s the unsustainable part. Smart continuous learning and interleaving with work experience is required. I think the associates degree (2 years) in the US needs far more investment and ramping up in prestige. Today it’s mostly remedial education for bad high school education, or for students who cannot afford the 4 year thing. I think an Associates-Plus degree upgradeable to a full bachelor’s degree by adding evening/weekend credits and work-for-credit experiences over the course of a decade would be far more useful. Students could use at least 2 years worth of credits in an agile/iterative way, instead of waterfall, making their investment more cost-effective and current, and informed by evolving work experience demands. They’d also enter the workforce earlier, at 20, with less debt, and be able to design the rest of their education to match their working life needs through their 20s, and around age 30 they can decide whether to become technical managers, deep technologists etc. This is for people who don’t go beyond undergraduate at most. The MS and PhD are of course very different, but frankly not very important in my opinion. The biggest impact can be made at the undergraduate level, and specifically in the first two years.

2. Where do you feel screen casts, Khan Academy, Youtube videos and
MIT OCW should fit in an undergraduate STEM course?

Not for STEM, no. For some liberal arts and humanities, perhaps, alongside some cooperative/group learning infrastructure. STEM education is heavily dependent on classroom structure, homework, office hours, recitations, labs, practicing skills etc. Khan etc. are bad substitutes. At best they are band-aids to cover gaps left by a regular university style education. MIT OCW type material can be used to lower cost of educational materials and curriculum development at universities with weak faculties, but to imagine that they can serve as self-learning material on a significant scale is deluded. At most 1-2% of students can self-learn using those materials, and they will be severely handicapped due to missing things that come from a social, structured classroom context.

3. In a post corporation world, what skills will become more
essential? Assuming of course we are close to writing the obituary of
the corporation.

Not skills so much as the meta-ability to assemble a set of skills into a personalised package that fits your path. We are nowhere close to writing the obituary of the corporation. It’ll be another 100 years at least. Students need to be prepared to deal with both corporate and free-agent/entrepreneurial phases in their futures. They will likely go back and forth between the two gears.

4. Do you feel the university will be replaced by such technologies
mentioned above? If no, do you feel that some pronouncements by people
like Bill Gates or certain politicians are a bit premature?

I don’t know what pronouncements specifically you are talking about. There is a lot of talk of university reform of course, and there always has been since the 9th century. But that’s a far cry from saying universities are obsolete. Some corners of academia — like design or software engineering — may be partially replaced by other community or organisational forms, but the majority will likely stay in a recognisably university style format. And your assumption is basically flawed. Institutions are a mix of people, social contracts and technologies. You cannot replace that kind of mix with a pure technology. You still need the people and social contracts governing what education is, how it is to be valued, and so forth.

There is also a lot of blind optimism about what unstructured learning through entrepreneurship or participation in open-source communities can achieve, even in disciplines like software engineering. I find people who have solely this kind of education beyond high school to generally have severe and crippling gaps in their education and skill levels.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there WILL be cataclysmic shifts in the university system, to the point that we may not recognize its descendent. But things like Khan, OCW, open source communities and Y-combinator are not where the next-generation STEM education ecosystem will emerge. They may play a small role, but for better or worse, the university is going to remain the workhorse of higher education for at least another 40-50 years at least.

5.Finally, is a STEM graduate functionally illiterate if they lack
programming skills? Why so?

An unqualified yes.10 years ago, I’d have said pure mathematics is an exception, but now I believe you cannot even do college level mathematics without a solid programming base. STEM disciplines depend on programming today as fundamentally as they do on the three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. This is more a subject for K-12 than universities. Students interested in STEM careers should be exiting high schools with fairly solid programming skills, comparable to the math skills. Good high schools produce graduates with strong pre-calculus mathematics skills in the US. Programming skills should be comparable. Today, high school seniors, if they have programming skills at all, have them at fairly terrible levels, equivalent to about 6th grade mathematics. The good ones who go beyond are self-taught.

\textbf{ 6. Is there anything more you’d like to add? Do you feel this
questions miss the mark of what actually will be important for young
graduates to understand? You’ve written about the use of say
Mathematics (Operations Research) in Shipping, and how that
technologists sometimes miss the real important events in
globalisation,is it possible in our discussions of the future of
education we actually miss the mark? After all the information dump of
Wikipedia and Khan Academy doesn’t necessarily lead to expertise.}

The liberal arts disciplines are sorely lacking in STEM majors. I’d like to see improvisational theater or fiction writing 101 become mandatory for STEM track students, along with a sequence of two well-designed cognitive psychology courses covering things like metaphor, narrative and their applications to things rhetoric, influence, ethnography and so forth. These should become standard in the curriculum, even at the expense of cutting out some old standards. This is scary to some people, but engineering does need to get closer to being a true liberal art.

If these things are addressed at all these days, they are taught in very narrowly utilitarian ways: rhetoric and narrative are reduced to their limited application in “technical communication.” Metaphor becomes “user experience.”

At a broader and more radical level, I think the practice of defining engineering majors at least, has become counter-productive. I have degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering, have worked in neither, have expertise in control theory which is generally considered more of an electrical engineering field, and most of my professional work has been in software product management. Something similar holds in science: the distinctions among physics, chemistry and biology are starting to become idiotic. At the undergraduate level, there should just be engineers, scientists and mathematicians. At the MS level, there can be more specialization, but it should still be something less formal than a departmental affiliation.