When I learned recently what Northwestern University's engineering students are up to, I went straight to Human Resources and said, "We've got to get some of these kids."
Reporter Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal wrote last month about the Northwestern program, which requires all engineering freshmen to take a class in unsolvable problems. The idea is to counter all the crap they learned in high school, as Paul Simon so eloquently put it--and to teach them that not only is failure an option, it's a fundamental building block of adult life.
The students work in teams of four to design and fabricate devices that help local patients with specific disabilities do simple tasks such as opening a can with one hand. Sometimes the teams are successful, often they're not, and the patients flat-out tell them when they've failed. In the process, the students learn teamwork, humility, creativity, resiliency in the face of rejection, and risk-taking.
This is the way you train future engineers to think--not by teaching them to code or asking them to build yet another robot. This is how you create entrepreneurs who don't waste everyone's time and money developing a trendy smartphone app, but who end up solving real-life problems.
At Big Ass Fans, we have a lot of top-notch engineers, and many of them tackle open-ended problems--our research and development budget is twice the national average as a percentage of revenue, and it's paid off. That's how we came up with the idea to put a computer in a fan and teach it how to work automatically. It's how we devised a system that prevents condensation from forming in factories. We've looked at ways to reduce produce spoilage in grocery stores and even spent weeks outside testing LED lights' effect on insects--and an employee's fortitude in the face of bug bites--until the whole experiment got wiped out by a summer storm. We win some, we lose some, and we keep coming up with new areas to explore, such as making lights that are as smart as our fans.
In short, we're always needing more engineers. But many kids who apply to work here straight out of college have a narrow focus, and it's all been learned from books. The experienced engineers who respond to our job postings are often only comfortable working within a very narrow system. That's why when I meet applicants, I want to hear about the first time they took apart the family toaster to see how it worked, pulled the transmission out of dad's car, or even taught themselves to code. That kind of initiative can be a far more reliable indicator of future success than anything on a resume.
For one of our scholarship programs we asked applicants to create a one-minute video about themselves, essentially summing up why they deserve to be selected. The kids all put their best face forward, but one video really stood out. In 60 seconds, this kid showed us things he'd built, things he'd dismantled and things he'd invented, while riffing on his stellar posture, prized possessions, and love of The Andy Griffith Show, Taylor Swift and math. You can bet we snapped him up.
Often I'm asked to speak to soon-to-graduate college students. I tell them, as kindly as possible of course, that the easy path is about to end, and at graduation they'll basically be dumped in a parking lot like a litter of abandoned kittens. I doubt most listen. But in fact, life is a free-for-all and most students aren't prepared for it. That's why this freshman engineering class at Northwestern got me so excited. It acknowledges that and attempts to redress it. It exposes kids to failure and forces them to truly think.
According to the article, it's been a requirement at the school for nearly 10 years now. If any graduates are reading, let me just say this: You know where to find me.