Archive for June 6th, 2012

06
Jun
12

Give us an “A”

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

I was reading on the local paper’s website today that the Newark Museum wants to add another letter to STEM. For the record, “STEM” is the acronym used in educational discussions for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Organizations including ASME and FIRST are making concerted efforts to promote the interest of young people in these subjects.

According to the article published by the Star-Ledger, a paper based in Newark and serving most of northern New Jersey, the museum wants to add an “A” to the mix—for “arts”—and make it “STEAM.”

The reporter, Peggy McGlone, writes, “Creativity and innovation are required in these scientific fields, according to STEAM proponents, and the arts provide the best training for them.”

The story didn’t go into great detail about the arts connection. The reference was an aside in a story about a program called MakerSpace, in which public school students work in a lab in the museum twice a week and make things. They were working on video games and controllers when the McGlone visited. She says it’s related to the Fab Lab idea out of MIT. There are computers, 3-D printers, a sewing machine, a vinyl printer, and other tools for the creative—that is to say, the inventive.

But the connection to creativity and Fab Lab immediately brought to mind several ideas about diversity and different ways of approaching the world: That there isn’t just one way to get results and that not all the smart people are in this room, or in this company, or in this whatever. That people have to be free to do what they do best.

John Borchardt wrote an article, for instance, that Mechanical Engineering published in February 2009 under the title “Outside Help.” He described programs, including one by Procter & Gamble, to solicit intellectual property for development into products. Procter & Gamble uses a website that it calls Connect + Develop, where people can submit ideas and follow up on them. Olay Regenerist anti-wrinkle skin cream and the Swiffer Duster are a couple of the products that came out of that program.

The diversity story that had the most surprises for me, though, was “Personalities Into Teams,” an article in the February 2010 Mechanical Engineering. The author, Doug Wilde, emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, reported some very convincing evidence about the need for diversity and an interesting use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

My previous experience with Myers-Briggs had not been pleasant. I had seen it used primarily as a means to pigeon-hole and stereotype people. When we were discussing the possibility of the article, which was based on Wilde’s book with the punny name Teamology (Springer, 2009), I told him that this was the first time I had approached the Myers-Briggs without a sense of dread.

Wilde’s story, in short, goes like this: For thirteen years, about a quarter of Stanford’s student design teams were winning Lincoln Foundation awards. Then the university began to use a variant of the Type Indicator that identified people according to their personal approaches to solving problems—experimental, intuitive, analytical, and so on. The idea was to get as many different approaches as possible represented on each team.

They didn’t always get along. Sometimes, they would say later that it seemed to make the work harder. Maybe it did.

But according to Wilde, that method of creating teams resulted in about three-quarters of them winning awards every year for a decade. Except for one year during that time when they didn’t bother with the testing and only a quarter of the teams won awards.

To me, that makes a strong case for the practical benefits of personal freedom—and of mutual respect.




The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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