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The Engineering Skills Gap: A Golden Opportunity for Changing the Way We Approach Education

Radha Narayan Rao K. has been with ARM as part of the ARM University World-wide Education Program since his postgraduation, actively supporting the marketing and operational functions. He had completed his Masters in Business Administration from Sri Sathya Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi.

Sadanand Gulwadi is the Global Manager of the ARM University Program based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. After graduating with a doctoral degree in 1992, he started his career as an academic at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia. Five years later, he quit academia to join a startup called Siliconians in Silicon Valley, California.

Imagine a student painstakingly studying the complete design, structure and functioning of a bicycle. The student further learns why, to be able to ride a bicycle, one needs to work its pedals continuously and, at the same time, maintain its balance. Yet when it comes to learning to ride one, the student realizes that it requires a lot of practice, patience and perseverance. Switch now to how a mechanic in a car-repair shop approaches a complex problem with extraordinary deftness to be able to perceive, understand and resolve it.

The scenarios above contrast two distinct aspects of knowledge – theory and practice. These two aspects complement each other, each enhancing our ability to uncover, ingest and assimilate the knowledge contained in the other. Often, in our lives, we notice how practical experience overshadows theoretical knowledge. However, theory and practice are each as important to our learning process as our two hands. The theory explains ‘why’, while the practical experience shows us ‘how’. The practical aspect of learning enables us to put theories to work and to test them.

Today’s education system provides students with loads of information: facts and textual knowledge of the world around them, curated for memorizing and later regurgitation during an exam. The lack of practical experience renders most graduating students unprepared for industry, while also preventing the nurturing and development of a student’s innate abilities and creativity. This can have a negative impact on society, whose students are its future.

We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience and 95% of what we teach others.
Edgar Dale, ‘The Cone of Experience’ (1969)

Students are the Casualty

The typical student is preoccupied with classroom lectures, labs, projects and examinations. Whereas labs and projects are more likely than lectures and exams to provide the practical experience required for industry preparedness, they are much less emphasized in the grading mechanisms that educational systems practice. This approach to grading is not by accident, but the result of the clever use of grading mechanisms that double as means to rank and consequently eliminate rather than encourage students on the path of self-growth and career development, often leaving them psychologically deeply hurt. Another classic student predicament is the use of outdated material in the classes and labs they take. Changing or creating new material for classes and labs to keep pace with advances in technology is an ongoing challenge both for academics and universities for numerous reasons, one of which is the time and effort they must invest in securing research grants, not to mention the inertia on the part of some academics in updating materials by and by with incremental advances in technology. The combined outcome of these situations is the students’ difficulty in assimilating and putting the knowledge they have received to practical use and, consequently, in securing their first job. This is the classic skills gap, the inevitable casualty of which are students who are left wondering where things went wrong.

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