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 / Autumn 2008 / Issue 52(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Case for Hands-on Education

If we truly intend to equip young people to face today’s complex problems and build viable answers, we’ll need many, many George Marshalls. To make this happen, we will have to change the way we approach teaching and learning, and STEM is a good place to start.

The Luck of Learning
I was a lucky kid. Learning was always fun for me. I felt good whenever I figured out or grasped something new. And from an early age, I realized that the knowledge I gained in school would be the key to doing the things I dreamed of doing.

I became fascinated with maps in the second grade, when I had to draw one showing my route to school. From that day forward, I saw maps as my way to learn about places I could not yet explore in person. The early 1960s were exciting times for a young girl with an adventurous spirit. Magazines like National Geographic and Life were filled with stories about foreign countries and the people who lived there, and about intrepid explorations of sea and space. I devoured every story and loved to learn how all the technical gear worked.

The great drama of these exploits struck me deeply. Of course, all the explorers of the time were white, male, and much older than I was. But that never registered as a signal that I couldn’t or wouldn’t be allowed to join them. After all, my father was a white male engineer, and I always felt fully a part of his world. I had crawled over his airplane blueprints when I was a young child, and as a teenager I drove the bass boat and flew the airplane just as often as my brother.

My university marine biology and oceanography professors were two of the best teachers I have ever encountered. The oceans were full of wonder to them, and they loved exploration, discovery, and learning. They regularly took students down to the shore and out on the bay, introducing us to marine critters and showing us how to work with field equipment. They shared how they planned their own research expeditions and taught us about the great historical expeditions. These individuals’ lives were full of curios­ity, adventure, travel, and learning — just the career model I had been looking for! I quickly changed my major from languages to science.

I was indeed lucky. In many schools, the contrast between “taking science classes” and “being a scientist” is striking — and very sad. Although there are exceptions, far too many kids experience science education as little more than vocabulary lists and isolated facts that they have to memorize. (The number of terms in a typical high school chemistry course exceeds 10,000 — more than are usually needed to learn a foreign language!) Questions are bothersome irritants that a teacher puts on a test, and if you don’t grab the right answers out of your memory bin, you’re in trouble. I’m amazed that we think any student would choose to major in science if this is all they see of it.

But to a dedicated scientist or engineer, a question that hasn’t been answered yet is a wonderful thing. It’s an invitation to let loose your curiosity, draw on your knowledge and understanding, explore and test your ideas, and build — not play back — an answer. For the questions that have propelled me, building answers has always involved working and learning in teams with people who bring varied expertise and background to the table. As you work, you find partial answers, recognize new as­pects of the question, and generate new and equally compelling questions. You’ll often discover that you can take action, as George Marshall did, before your understanding of the solution is complete.

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