Combine academics, social system

By From page A6 | March 07, 2013

Relevant to the controversial GATE lottery is the need to teach thoughtful kids that “best and brightest” labels require much socializing, not just brainpower.

The Feb. 19 Enterprise stated that election to the National Academy of Engineering is “the highest professional distinction for an engineer.” Might it be a greater distinction for the originators if the reported “extremely strong aluminum alloys” find their way out of the lab to affordably benefit many people?

The National Academy is an exclusive club that draws members mostly from universities and other research organizations. Students and guidance counselors should know that mainstream engineering is more about creating, designing and building useful things, then making them work reliably for the public.

Academia encourages engineering professors to be more like scientists. Chancellor Linda Katehi was quoted as calling the honoree a scientist. Might such uncertainty cause identity crises for young people seeking career paths?

The goal of science is to reveal nature’s secrets to humanity, but many engineers create technical information as valuable private property. Thus publishing in research journals is a less universal measure of engineering accomplishment than for science.

The article noted 700 publications during a 30-year career, roughly two per month. A breakthrough every two weeks would indicate genius, but the well-known social element is that familiarity helps authors obtain acceptance. Conversely, highly original work can be rejected by publication reviewers because it is unfamiliar, misunderstood or controversial.

Unlike newspaper articles, scholarly technical publications rarely have one author. Universities assign an individual publication credit to each author, an excellent measure of fundraising for people who preside over teams. It would be a luxury to put a higher priority on technical achievement.

Clearly, we need to teach GATE-identified kids to not be too smart. The social system is so important that perhaps it is not GATE that “divides the community,” but rather segregating kids who prefer group projects, as the Da Vinci Charter Academy does.

My intent is more to shed light than to criticize academic success. I remain forever grateful to all my past teachers, including both science and engineering professors.

John Whitehead

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