So What Will We Do When We Don’t Have to Think?

In this article about my friend Ethan Hereth, the following:

Like others before me, I have the perception that the education of quality engineers in the field of CFD has been falling short recently. It feels to me like there are very few engineers in this arena that grok CFD like many of the founding fathers and engineers of CFD did before us. I feel that the latest generations of CFD engineers have become used to applications that do much of the work, often shielding them from having to really understand the underlying concepts.

That perception has been around a long time.  Forty years ago when I was in the aerospace industry and working for Texas Instruments, I developed some software (had to write the code for it in this language) which automated some of our analysis work.  My boss was impressed with the results, but asked the question: what will happen when we just let the computer do all the work and we dummies just look at the results it spits out without knowing how they were produced?  My answer was that those of us working on the code know, but those who come after are the ones we have to be concerned about.

Well, as we used to say at Texas A&M, next year is here.  Most people who use technology today–and that includes some people in the STEM fields–have no clue how computers do their work, how the answers are arrived at, the theory behind their methods, or how easy it is for bugs (and security flaws) to get into the code that makes the software work.  The result is that, while the computer should make us smarter, the reality is the opposite effect.

The place where fixing that problem starts is in STEM education and the way we look at computers.  We need to get away from the accepted point of view of STEM education as people learning to push buttons in software they use, and we need to teach people how to code, even at the most elementary level.  One of my math professors observed that coding was a form of mathematical proof, and that in turn teaches you how to think.  But that skill is in short supply in our educational system, and if you think the results are not pretty now, just wait until “next year.”

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