Process knowledge and STEM education

I recently subscribed to The Prepared, a weekly newsletter that collects interesting articles about engineering, manufacturing, industrial processes, and supply chain. (I can’t exactly remember how I found it, most likely through this other newsletter. So thank you to Robin Sloan for introducing me to it.)

I’m loving the newsletter. Teenage choices led me into the sciences, but I think if the coin-toss had landed differently, I could just as easily have headed towards engineering instead. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by engineering, a world that is almost mystical in its strange-but-familiar quality. My fascination with this mystique manifests in weird places, primarily in my world-building for fantasy worlds, where I write a disproportionate number of world-building encyclopaedia articles exploring technomagical engineering and materials and industry.

So this newsletter gives me a window into real-world thing… and boy, have I fallen through this window, down the rabbit hole of long-form articles, into engineering Wonderland.  This is amazing, fascinating new stuff to me. I have no doubt that ideas gleaned from this newsletter are going to appear in my world-building and novels.

So it was through this newsletter that I read this fantastic long-form article which articulates many thoughts I’ve developed, in one way or another, mostly through my job. And it’s the thought that process knowledge, or tacit knowledge, is the most important skillset out there, that every person has to learn in their vocation, but is completely neglected in formative education. Mass education is rife with acquiring theoretical knowledge and learning how to apply them to scenarios, but the successful transaction between theory and application is a process – and learning process only comes from repeated hands-on exposure.

I never cease to be grateful that my vocational choices have led me to work that isn’t entirely desk-bound, where I have to execute theory into application in the physical, tangible world.  It’s also given me first-hand experience at how anaemic, how attenuated is the current education system at cultivating process knowledge. While I think that process is impossible to teach, it can be (and indeed, has to be) learnt, and the learning is best measured by producing physical, tangible outcomes.  Tracking and quantifying process, however, is elusive and too subtle for the brute-force theory-to-application methods in mass education, so it doesn’t get tracked, if it gets noticed at all.

That article focuses primarily on technological innovation and doesn’t address education, but I think the loss of manufacturing and industry in Western nations has direct repercussions on STEM outcomes in education. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in this government about how the nation lags in STEM outcomes compared to world-wide standards. But STEM achievement is primarily bound up in process knowledge, as the article states.  How can you effectively learn STEM processes if manufacturing is shutting down all over the country and has moved offshore?

Because science, engineering and technology is about manipulating the physical world, which is embodied through manufacturing and industrial processes. Moving bits and bytes in a disembodied, abstracted space can’t hold a candle to manipulating the physical world, with my body and equipment, into products and outcomes that can be evaluated by the five senses and spatial analysis.  In the physical world comes tangible, embodied risk, and therefore, the greatest opportunity for embodied, embedded learning.

Over the years of working in secondary education and tertiary academia, I’ve concluded that process knowledge, not theory nor applications, is the most important thing to be teaching people both young and old. If I had to stay in the education sector for the rest of my life, I want to end up in the trade and vocational schools. Because, in this nation where manufacturing is but a shadow of what it once was, trade school is a place where process knowledge still stands a chance of being valued and taught in any meaningful way.  At the end of the day, humans live in a physical world, human civilization is built on physical processes.  Even in a post-human world where human consciousnesses have been uploaded into computers, someone still has to keep the power on.