Hands-On Learning in Engineering Disciplines Makes Senses

It's Intuitive That Hands-On Experience is More Meaningful, But What Makes it So? It's Probably Because More of Our Physical Senses Are Involved

By Jim Montague

I've been out and about researching a couple of upcoming science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) stories lately, and I've started to pick up on a few common threads and themes.

First, the whole reason for covering STEM education is that practically every conference session, panel discussion, webinar or other presentation I've attended in the past several years brings up the accelerating brain drain of veteran engineers retiring, too few rookies replacing them and the irretrievable losses in priceless know-how expected to devastate many manufacturing applications and companies. This lament is quickly followed by the belief that few if any young people want to go into industrial fields. And, finally, pretty much no students and few teachers are aware of automation and controls engineering.

Unfortunately, few practical solutions for plugging the brain drain are brought up during these presentations, other than vague exhortations to better promote control and automation occupations and somehow connect with youngsters and students. You know these lectures—lots of "we must." What's needed is more specifics and "here's what works."

Also Read: STEM to the Core

Second, I started to wonder what caused this big fall off in interest in engineering, and how did it stop the flow of rookies? Sure, engineers aren't the most gregarious folks, their training is technically difficult, and factories and machine are viewed as unglamorous and dirty. Well, most of the doctors and cops I used to cover weren't talkative either, their training was equally challenging, and they often work in gritty and unpleasant settings too. However, somehow doctors and cops get an endless parade of TV shows and movies. Maybe Marvel Comics' Iron Man and his alterego Tony Stark will help.

Anyway, as I began interviewing some students and their mentors about FIRST Lego League, FIRST Robotics, Project Lead the Way and other introductory engineering programs and competitions that have gone mainstream in the past dozen years, I started to see the same enthusiasm that the veteran engineers expressed for their long ago Erector sets, Estes rockets and Heathkit shortwave radios.

So why the big gap between the retiring engineers and the kids just picking it up now? I think it started when parents first began to use TVs to babysit their children. The demographic edges are admittedly rough, but there were about 20 years back there, maybe 1975-95, when kids were parked more and more routinely in front of the tube, without even the interactivity of video games or the PCs that arrived later. Sadly, just exclusively taking in input is so passive for the viewer that I believe it dilutes and damages the natural instinct to inquire and interact with the outside world. If I'm spoon fed all the time, why should I go out and hunt?

Third, despite today's huge, high-definition screens, there's still no substitute for literally hands-on experience in the real world. This is because hearing about an activity, or even watching it, is still nowhere near as good as doing it yourself—just as playing a sport or musical instrument is better than watching it. STEM and engineering students at all levels echo this same sentiment: Their favorite classes are the ones that give them the most lab time.

Learning is way more powerful, memorable and useful in the longer term when the underrated senses of touch and smell are involved too.

It's intuitive that hands-on experience is more meaningful, but what makes it so? I think it's because more of our physical senses are involved. Sure, we get most of our information through our eyes and ears, but learning is way more powerful, memorable and useful in the longer term when the underrated senses of touch and smell are involved too.

Many years ago, I remember my brother, Gray, had book about how to play soccer, and it stated that a normal person will have to think about five or six actions to try and block a ball from going into the goal, but an experienced goalie will only have to think about one action because practice has built up, strung together and strengthened the neural pathways in his brain. Likewise, in a recent "Nova ScienceNow" episode, host Neil deGrasse Tyson learned an interactive skiing videogame complete with poles, but after practicing the required hands-on skills, it took a good night's sleep to really chisel those new skills into long-term memory. Researchers in the video report that, during sleep, the brain's hippocampus reviews the day's events with the neocortex and picks out and strengthens memories with useful skills and strategies. That's why hands-on experiences with all senses involved is so essential—it's just the best way to learn STEM skills or anything else. Just make sure to get enough shuteye too.