The Universal Cry for Context

When will we ever use this stuff? Posted on June 8, 2015 by Mark Conner

There are two types of students – those who ask, “When will we ever use this stuff?” and those who only think it.  I was definitely in the former category.  I asked … a lot.  As a student, I never gave too much thought about what was driving the question.  I was too busy being a smart aleck to really care.  Now that I’m on the other side of the classroom, I think a lot about why students ask the question.  The reason they ask is obvious, especially if you include the implied second part of the question.  The full question is, “When will we ever use this stuff, because you haven’t told me?”

Students crave context, and “When will we ever use this stuff?” is their universal cry for it.  Context is needed throughout the learning process.  It motivates students to learn on the front end, keeps them engaged as they learn new concepts and acquire new skills, and then serves as a proving ground on the back end.  Until someone can apply what they have learned in context, there is some question as to whether or not true learning has occurred.  I certainly could offer my thoughts as to why there is still such a clear absence of context in classrooms around the country, but those editorial comments may be best suited for a future post.  Instead, I want to focus on why engineering provides such a great context for a number of subjects.

A succinct definition of engineering is nearly impossible, because engineering encompasses so much.  This breadth is what makes engineering such a great platform for teaching.  Engineering involves the application of principles from multiple fields – mathematics, physical sciences, life sciences, computer science, technology, economics, social sciences, communications, and more.  These principles are used to analyze existing systems and design new ones.  Whether it is analysis or design, there is inherent context that can motivate students to learn fundamental concepts from one or more fields, require them to synthesize information from across disciplines, and help them to see the degree to which technology is impacting everyday life.  Engineering is ultimately the context for the S, T, and M in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.  While educators have managed to isolate subjects like math and science so that students are unable to see the connection between the two, it is impossible to separate engineering from its connection to these other subjects … though I’m sure some will attempt to do so.

I am also passionate about engineering as it relates to education because students can develop a host of valuable work and life skills as they encounter real-world, open-ended scenarios.  Content knowledge is important, and learning new concepts in a meaningful context helps to solidify that knowledge.  At the end of the day, though, the hard and soft skills that we bring to the table tend to be just as important, if not more so, than content knowledge.  Hard skills, like being able to acquire and analyze data, computer programming, project management, proficiency in various software tools, and technical writing, can be developed through engineering projects.  The same is true for soft skills, like learning to work as part of a team, having a strong work ethic, problem-solving, time management, and the ability to communicate well.  These types of hard and soft skills are embedded in every course in the Catapult Engineering Academy curriculum, and the students who truly invest in these courses will enter college with a broad skill set that will clearly differentiate them from the majority of their peers.

I have marketed these courses to students for years by telling them that we spend four years answering the question, “When will I ever use this stuff?”  I am on a mission to eliminate this question from my classroom – physical or virtual.  But if I fail to provide sufficient context at any point, I absolutely want my students to ask the question – they deserve to know the answer!