Why I think this is important

In 20 years of teaching post-secondary engineering, engineering technology, and technical trade school courses, I found that students, through no fault of their own, are far more poorly prepared for a technical education than I was thirty years ago. I think that similar observations could be made by any engineering professor. The difficulty is that most students have had very little contact with the machinery that they use every day. Automobiles, especially since the advent of electronic vehicle computers, now seem untouchable to erstwhile "Saturday mechanics." Electronic devices have shrunk to monolithic integrated circuits connected to LCD displays; both are the very essence of inaccessibility. Moreover, an increasing proportion of formerly accessible household mechanical devices like typewriters, thermostats, clocks and watches, and cameras have themselves been turned into inaccessible electronic devices. These devices themselves are much improved, but what is there for the children to discover inside?

Contributing to the loss of technical curiosity is the fact that there don't seem to be as many fathers taking apart toasters and carburetors on Saturday mornings as there used to be. Social scientists tell us that there aren't as many fathers as there were, and it seems to me that fathers who spend "quality time" with a joint-custody child probably won't spend it fixing the toaster, which is easily replaced. Moreover, the car no longer has a carburetor. And the father likely doesn't know how to fix either one. 

Science education has changed as well. It has been argued that the increased emphasis on biology is a reflection of an anti- industrial bias amongst science educators. It can also be argued that the sheer volume of advances in medicine and biological science are simply displacing the older industrially-oriented topics. Despite the cause, children no longer learn how things work in school, and I believe that this has caused a great disempowerment of recent generations of kids.

This leads to a bit of political discussion:

Water, sewer, power, transportation systems and structures are life-support systems. Thus nuclear power, flood control, EMF's, air travel and automobile safety issues have become political issues. If citizens do not know why an aircraft flies or where their water comes from, there is ample room for opportunists to step in. Technical illiteracy is a major failure of our educational system and has been neglected in favor of the far narrower pursuit of proficiency in computer software.

So even if you or your kid will never have a job title that includes the words "engineer" or "technician," you are a user of complex machinery and systems and depend upon them for your very lives. This is not an exaggeration. Suppose electric power, water and sewer service were to cease. What would happen to the rates of disease? Then we'll dump telephone and other communications services as well, and remove our air and road transportation so each little community will be isolated in its squalor. We _are_ engineers, all of us.

Technical literacy is a womens' issue as well. In most of the engineering courses I've taught there has been a small percentage of female students. (University engineering schools have been largely unsuccessful in recruiting more women into the "fraternity" of engineers, but that is not our concern here.) My observation is that women have, with only a few exceptions, had even less familiarity with machines than their male counterparts. They also seem to have an extra layer of reluctance to become involved with real devices sitting upon a workbench. There is a kind of look I've seen on the faces of my female students in the laboratory, and it can really only be described as fear. How is it that women have been scared away from machines, and at an early age?

Science museums, as they are currently constituted, don't address the problem. The objectives of the old museums (pre-1980, about) were modest but realistic: they were to be educational and research institutions which catered mainly to adults and which were, in the great tradition of philanthropy, not particularly concerned with making a profit. Children liked them because adults liked them: kids will always be interested in anything which interests adults. Some exhibits and programs would be too advanced for kids, but that usually brought the kids back as they got older.

The new science centers and childrens' museums cater to children. The museum gift shops are large, the math and science content of the exhibits is carefully regulated to preserve the self-esteem of the children, and there is a heavy emphasis on dinosaurs, DNA, dolphins, and environmental politics.