Why Kids — and Workers — Need to Get Their Hands Dirty

Children in the U.S. today interact much less with their physical environment than they used to. Few grow up building fences, designing go-karts or tinkering with their cars anymore; vocational high schools are all but closed.  What do kids today do instead? The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that 8- to 18-year-olds spend 53 hours a week engrossed in entertainment media.

So what? Who cares? Manufacturers, those companies that create physical products requiring a blend of high-tech electronics and physical components, do.  And if Americans want that sector of their economy to be strong, they should, too.

Take an aircraft maker like Boeing or a steel giant like Nucor.  When the engineers and operators they hire lack real-world building experience, the organization has to teach them. Sure, these young people can fashion incredible structures in Minecraft and design and test products digitally, but many are out of touch with the physical world, what we might think of as tactile intelligence. Many have no practiced knowledge about how metal or plastic bends, breaks, retains heat or burns, no practical understanding of how to limit size for fuel efficiency while allowing enough space for technicians to reach inside and connect components. If you haven’t physically handled and experimented with woods, metals, plastics, it’s difficult to imagine how to engineer an airplane wing that can, for example, keep bending to 140% of its maximum load without damage, and only fail beyond that.

Manufacturers are therefore faced with a daunting choice: outsource the design and testing to countries where tactile intelligence is still high, or fill the knowledge gap of new hires in the U.S. The first solution is problematic since competitive advantage in manufactured products often stems from design, and out-sourcing can endanger the retention of core capabilities and limit innovation. The second solution requires time and energy but we would argue that it’s worth the investment.

Boeing’s “Opportunities for New Engineers” program, for example, allows employees to physically create aerospace products. The challenge might be to build a wood/composite miniature airplane from design through development, building, testing, and flying. The finished product must meet stringent and practical requirements:

Dual Mission: Cargo/Reconnaissance
Weight: 20 lbs empty; Wingspan: 16 ft
Payload: 5 lb payload, 5 Watts supplied to payload
Endurance/Range: 10 hour full-sun/1 hour no-sun (cruise) endurance, 10 mile range
Single battery charge (full-daylight)
90% of (cruise) power from solar
Transportable by car.
Assemble by two people.
Recurring cost: $X
Non-recurring cost: $Y

With senior engineers as mentors, participants learn by doing. They see and feel how the parts physically fit or don’t.  They understand the touch and finesse needed to bend the wing and the physical strength of a thick versus a thin cross section.  They see where years of engineering theory clash with harsh realities.  And these experiences lead to a better understanding of design, which translates to better engineering. Forcing young engineers to understand the balance of cost and technical excellence helps drive many to find more efficient solutions.

The “Opportunities for New Engineers” program’s most ambitious project, however, is to Build, Certify and Fly (BCnF) a Glasair Super II airplane. A 32-person team of mostly engineers will do everything from procuring and installing the avionics package and power plant to developing and performing the flight test program. Once certified in early 2014, the airplane will be utilized by the Boeing Employees Flight Association (BEFA) during airshows as a flight demonstrator and for training purposes.

Expertise is built through practice. The more time our “digital native” kids spend on entertainment media, the more we lose the tactile intelligence critical to design and manufacture physical products.   So let’s encourage children to start physically building and tinkering again. Let’s encourage schools to let students dirty their hands in projects and experiments. Let’s close the gaps we already see in the next generation of workers. And let’s enable the tactile intelligence we need to remain competitive in our growing global marketplace.

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