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Tapping the Engineering Ingenuity of Today’s Digital Natives

by Bill Martin-Otto on 12 Apr, 2012 in IT

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About a decade ago, the first digital natives began filling engineering positions. These young workers were brought up in the digital environment, and as baby boomers begin to retire in droves, they are the new face of the engineering profession. Will this generation of digital natives produce enough engineers and what kind of workers will they be?

Training Digital Natives as Engineers

In recent years we’ve been hearing warning cries from the media and the White House about an impending national shortage of engineers.

The real picture is more complicated, says Duke University Engineering professor Vivek Wadhwa. True, statistics coming out of China and India point to thousands of newly minted engineers each year. But these “engineers” include many less rigorously trained students who go on to become factory workers and bureaucrats. American-educated engineers, says Wadhwa, “learn a broad variety of skills, including strong interpersonal skills and an understanding of customers and markets — and, most importantly, they can innovate.”

Unfortunately, many of these graduates don’t go into engineering. Instead, they apply their skills toward better-paying positions on Wall Street. And many other graduates of American engineering colleges are foreign nationals whose training will benefit their home countries, not ours.

Finally, many potential engineers don’t go into engineering at all. Wadhwa believes that America as a society needs to “make the engineering profession ‘cool’ again,” with the same urgency of the Sputnik era. Engineers, after all, are problem solvers, and we have plenty of gripping problems to solve—the scarcity of natural resources, crumbling infrastructure and drug-resistant bacteria to name just a few. “But we’re not offering our best minds incentive to solve them,” Wadhwa laments.

Learning Styles of Digital Natives

Marc Prensky blames digital natives’ lack of interest in engineering on outdated teaching methods that fail to understand, much less capitalize on, digital natives’ brain wiring. Prensky, a writer, consultant and game designer in the education and learning arenas who coined the term digital native in 2001, says there’s a disconnect between digital natives and “digital immigrant” teachers, those “who have not grown up surrounded by and using computers and other technology even if they have . . . become competent or proficient users.”

While digital natives receive information quickly and randomly, digital immigrants prefer their instructions step by step. Digital natives can easily multitask, but digital immigrants prefer to finish one task before starting another. The list of differences goes on and on, and the implications are huge, not just for education but for today’s workplaces.

For one thing, says Prensky, digital natives prefer games to “serious” work, while digital immigrants see games as strictly a leisure activity. Yet games are a powerful learning tool for digital natives.

Prensky and his colleagues developed the Monkey Wrench Conspiracy, a game for teaching the use of complex CAD software to a group of engineering students. Styled after “first-person shooter” games like Doom, the learner must save a space station from attack by using the CAD software to build tools, fix weapons and defeat booby traps. In the course of playing the game, learners access topics randomly in an atmosphere of urgency, with instructions provided via video rather than print. There’s no trace of textbook language anywhere.

Avoiding the Generation Gap

While the creativity and jump-right-in spirit of today’s digital natives is a huge asset, engineers from both generations need to understand each other. For instance, old-school design engineers are fond of saying that there’s no substitute for a pencil-and-paper sketch. Many digital natives may scratch their head at this sentiment, but the idea behind it—that you can express an idea simply before building up a structure underneath it—is just as true for the younger generation. For them, the computer is the pencil and paper.

Chris Hartman, a senior academic program manager at PTC, frequently teaches CAD workshops in schools. He says his students “fully appreciate and make powerful use of the computer screen as a flexible medium for expression. They expect transparent interfaces and Hot-Key shortcuts. They understand and create their own (e.g., ‘LOL’) syntax conventions to extract more capability from their communication technologies.” Luckily for young engineers already working in the field, CAD technologies exist today that have the transparency, flexibility and interactive capabilities that mesh well with digital natives’ working styles.

Digital natives are changing the way engineering firms work and the tools engineers use. And that’s good news, because our clients are changing, too. They expect vendors who can “speak” engineering as digital natives, using cloud-based, high-engagement and integrated mobile technologies.

How are digital natives and digital immigrants mingling at your company? Please comment below and share your experiences with the CAD/CAM Performance community.

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