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  • Wayne Conrad

The Importance of Hands-On Experience

More than at any time in history, we have today amazing tools to make invention, discovery and creativity easier than ever. The internet provides a vast range of information at the touch of a button. Computer-aided drafting tools, engineering simulations, rapid prototyping and CNC machines enable us to build almost anything quickly and easily. So why are we losing our capacity to make things?

Many governments throughout the world have eliminated from school curriculums essential trades such as woodworking, machining and auto repairs. This has occurred in junior, middle and high school. Perhaps there is a belief that these skills are no longer needed, or that they can be learned from browsing the internet or from reading a book. This has led to a generation of students without the hands-on training to take an idea and convert it into a practical object.

In the past, when companies hired new staff with a technical education, it was common practice to have them mentored, essentially “apprenticed” into the particular industry. If you were hired by NASA, older experienced staff would teach you how to apply your knowledge in a practical application. It was learning by doing and by understanding the stuff that never gets written down. This was how knowledge was passed along to the next generation so that manufacturing processes could be maintained. It is often referred to as “tribal knowledge.”

Over the past fifty years, in our eagerness to achieve the lowest manufacturing cost, many companies have systematically reduced or eliminated the company structures that created the true value and longevity within companies and organizations. I recently read an article about the World Economic Forum that projected a declining need for manual dexterity, management of resources and people, reading, writing, active listening and speaking. Instead, active learning, creativity, originality, emotional intelligence and other factors would drive the growth of the world.

In my view, we have a bleak future if the leaders of business, industry and commerce, as well as our educators, follow this course of thinking. While I agree that active learning, creativity, originality, and emotional intelligence are important, they must be coupled with traditional fundamental knowledge as the foundation for growth. Over 350 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton recognized that “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” that our achievements are built upon the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors. The more foreign goods we buy, the more we unwittingly and irreversibly transfer the knowledge of our ancestors to other countries. As industries relocate, it is naïve to think that, if need to revive them, we can do so reading books or attending a seminar. The unwritten knowledge from “doing” goes with the relocation.

If you think that my comments are an exaggeration, let me give you an example. In the 1960’s, NASA build the mighty Saturn V launch vehicle and Apollo capsule to take people to the moon and back. They designed, engineered and testing the new platform by building upon the knowledge of previous rocket programs. NASA still has all the engineering documentation, but everyone who built those items is long dead or retired. The cost-cutting measures that started in the 1980s saw the elimination of thousands of workers and the new hires to replace them. The tribal-knowledge bridge between generations was broken. As a consequence, NASA can no longer build a Saturn V. The subtle little tricks like how to wiggle this weirdly shaped component through the mess of other components and of how to make the engines roar is gone. Most or all of the machining equipment is no longer there or rusting away. All of the software components are in formats that can’t be read unless there’s a compatible machine in a museum somewhere.

In contrast, the United States Navy has maintained traditions that many have thought are outdated and unnecessary. It understands the importance of the tribal-knowledge bridge. Despite criticisms, the navy and its contractors have maintained the knowledge of thousands of things that ship-fitters have learned to ensure that new ships can be built today and in the future. The secrets to making the processes work has been, and is continuing to be passed along to the next generation. Foremen on the job today for the USS John F. Kennedy were probably apprentices when the last of the Nimitz-class ships were being built. They bring all that knowledge forward.

The internet is amazing. Artificial intelligence and new technologies are transforming the world. What was thought as science fiction not too long ago is very real today. Reading, writing, math and science are as important as ever, maybe even more so. But young people need to learn to make things with their hands and to gain an innate understanding of the physical properties of the world. By doing this, they will be much better positioned to have a successful life and career and make a meaningful contribution to the betterment of society.

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Dec 07, 2021

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