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Ken Olsen on Engineering Education

from DECWORLD the company newspaper, July 1983


On receiving the 1982 Founders Award from the National Academy of Engineers, Ken Olsen spoke on the subject of engineering education at the organization's annual meeting. (The Academy of Engineers was formed to examine questions of science and technology at the request of the federal government.)


"I have a vested interest in engineering. It is the profession I love, and the one of which I have been a member for more than thirty years. Because I love it so much, I worry about what is happening to our engineering education.


Ken Olsen, president


"I was too young to study engineering or science in the 1930s. But after the war, I had contact with some of the physicists from the old school.


"They  had gone into science because they loved it, not to make money at it. They learned to use machinery, blow glass, because they loved science. They believed they could learn anything they didn't know ,,, and they were fun to be with because of their knowledge and interest in the physical world.


"Since then, the physicist has specialized in high and low-energy particles and left the generalist part to electrical engineers who are now studying computer science. I hope mechanical engineers take over or we will miss something we used to have.  Our biggest weakness and hardest-to-find people are those who understand anything physical.


"years ago when people went to college, they were told, "We are not going to teach you what you need to know. We are going to teach you to learn. You come here to learn how to learn." I think we have forgotten that. Today, we try to expose students to everything. We even teach all we know about computers and call it a science. We have lost all of the inquisitiveness to keep learning.


"If ever we needed to teach people to continue learning it is now! We have a student in school for four or six years, or maybe eight. If he starts work at 25 and retires at 65 or 75, he has 40 or 50 years of work. Most of the learning ahs to be during his working career. If we don't teach a student to learn after he is out of school, there is no way are we going to take him back every few years and retread him. Learning has to be continuous and forever.


"I have a vested interest in computers. I love them. They make great tools for teaching, for communications, for defining problems and for learning. But there are some problems with computers in education, and we saw some of this with the calculator.


"When we all used slide rules, we always knew the significance of the precision of our measurements. You always had to keep in mind how many digits were significant and where the decimal point was. All of that has disappeared. The calculator relieves the student of the need to understand mathematical functions. They'll be fine, as long as the battery holds out.


"Is our successful application of high technology to everyday life really destroying the desire to learn by making learning unnecessary? Is technology providing instant effortless learning without requiring the passionate involvement of the student?


"Now those of us who are involved with education and in the supervision of engineers have a tremendous responsibility. We have to make sure we have the people to carry on and build the things we want and need."  privacy statement