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I’m 45 now, I’ve been an engineer for over half my life.  Bit by bit, I have passed into the second half of my career without ever seeing the change coming.  Every once in a while I run into a discussion, in person or online, about the Millenials as the “Me Generation”, about how young people today are all about their entitlement and their toys, and not about what they can do your their country — or, more likely, for their employer.  As some like to sum it up, “Millenials want bags of money or praise.”

The first time it happened, maybe five years ago or so — I guess by then I was considered elderly enough not to be considered one of the young whippersnappers anymore — I was quite shocked.  I was trying to recognize the young people I know, and failed.  I asked myself whether it was because I was so disconnected from them, but it just so happen that a good number of my friends are in their mid-twenties.

Now I’ve gone back to teaching and I look at even younger people in our Engineering Department.  Do these complaints reflect what I’m seeing?

In a word, no.  I think it’s absurd.

I’m not saying that there is no difference between young people in 2011 and those I taught in the late 90s, or my cohorts in the late 80s, let alone my parents’ generation.  Particularly in the way they have learned to learn, the way they work, their expectations of how things work, they obviously have been shaped by a different context.  They have grown up with different technology.

But I find the descriptions that have been attached to their supposed sense of entitlement and air-headedness completely unfair.  Do they have unrealistic expectations?  Of course — it’s part of that stage of life.  And let’s face it, the world they have been raised to expect changes even faster with each passing decade.

Do they need to learn critical thinking, hard work, self-reliance, initiative, resourcefulness?  About as much as 20-year-olds ever do, and maybe less than my students from the late 90s.

Do they have an inflated sense of entitlement?  Ha.  Less so than the Baby Boomers.  In fact, if anything the Millenials’ flaw in the eyes of most employers is that they aren’t quite naive enough about being taken advantage of.  I still wouldn’t call them savvy — that’s something that take more years of experience — but they don’t come in with the expectation that they should sacrifice everything to the altar of The Job.  I say good on them.

No, what I’m seeing is young people who want their choices to have a meaning, who want try many things, who want their efforts to be appreciated, and who are doubtful about how much they can trust what they hear from older generations.  Employers, give them a chance and give them some reasons to love what they do!

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Nothing momentous to report, just a snapshot of my students working in the lab this afternoon.  No broken glassware, no spill, no disasters (that I’m aware of, anyway.)  Hopefully the results won’t be too wacky either!

The water they are analyzing for total coliforms and fecal coliforms comes from a site near the mouth of Martin Slough in Eureka.  The results will be used by the Capstone Project class (seniors graduating in the spring, working on their final project) to design a restoration that will include a wastewater treatment system for agricultural runoff on the site.  So it’s important that the Water Quality class pass good quality results to the Capstone Project students.

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I’m teaching two classes this semester: Environmental Impact Assessment, primarily for seniors; and Water Quality and Environmental Health, for second- and third-year students.  The water quality class is split up into two groups for lab purposes.  We took advantage of the unseasonably beautiful weather this past week to go do some field work along Jolly Giant Creek in Arcata.  That’s the kind of afternoon that reminds me why it’s so much fun to be an environmental engineer.

Both classes are really fun subjects for me.  I have a lot of good material to work from, and I’m trying to hone my teaching skills.  I’ve been reading Teaching Engineering, by Philip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz, a classic and solid reference on the topic.  My goal is to rely less on lectures and raise the quality of those lectures.  I need to use more diverse ways of imparting the course materials.

I’ve also been buffing up on my skills with the new information technologies we now have to assist with teaching, and particularly with Moodle, the chosen course management system at HSU.   The tool is interesting but I’m not certain it actually saves time, it just makes things more transparent.  Or not.

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Sigh.  Although my students do the best they can with the background they have, I continue to be stunned at the low requirements of the American education system. A sizable portion of college and university classes here are basically remedial high school. I’m getting lots of people in their second or third year in a four-year engineering program who have never had any statistics at all. They will have to take one stats class before they graduate, but it’s not prerequisite to many other classes so they tend to take it late in the program. It seriously limits their tools and understanding.

Let’s compare:

Requirements to graduate from Polytechnique of Montreal:

  • Need to have enough high school math, physics and chemistry to take the 2-year Pure and Applied Sciences program at a CEGEP (junior college)
  • There, 3 physics classes, 6 math classes, 3 chemistry classes, 1 bio class, plus 4 PE classes, 4 philosophy classes, 4 French classes, and some English (60 units total).
  • Polytechnique: 120 units of solid, wall-to-wall engineering.  No relief from any GEs or electives.

Requirement to graduate here:

  • No requirements on high school classes, though math, physics and chemistry are recommended.
  • 27 units of GE
  • 106 units of sciences and engineering including the same math, physics, and chemistry I had to take in junior college.

Conclusion: Canadian engineers graduate WAY more prepared.  I cringe when I hear people talking about how difficult the program or a class is.

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