no skills gap?

I won’t say there is no skills gap. In Massachusetts alone right now there are about 250,000 unemployed people and at the same time about 130,000 unfilled jobs with the employers reporting that they cannot find skilled workers. No I won’t say there’s is no gap. There is obviously a gap. The other thing that’s obvious, at least to me, is that the problem isn’t a gap of skill. The solution to a skills gap is always training and we are really good at training. 
     We are really good at training; one program I’m involved with has trained almost 200 people to become operators of computer controlled manufacturing equipment over the past few years. In this program we help long term unemployed people gain highly sought after skills in a very short time. In a period of about 9 weeks we can enable someone who has never been in a manufacturing facility to get a job as a CNC machine tool operator with basic programming and setup skills.
     By the graduation day, for any session of this class, almost every trainee already has a job. The rest typically have one within a few weeks. We’ve even had one local employer hire 10 out of 12 trainees  from a session of the class before it even started.  No training isn’t the problem, we can do training.
     We can do training, but 200 is a drop in the bucket compared to the 130,000 potential jobs out there and that is just considering Massachusetts. When we started this project I assumed that the cost of delivering the training and our ability to fund it would be the limiting factor in the number and frequency of classes we could offer. The actual limit on the other hand has been our ability to sign up qualified candidates.
     Its not that the other 249,800 unemployed people in the state are too stupid to complete our training on the contrary most of the people not applying could fly through the class.
     The primary problem with our class is that people aren’t interested in careers in manufacturing. They think those jobs are dirty and beneath them. They might love to watch Mike Rowe but they don’t want a “Dirty Job”.
     This is especially sad because, although there are dirty jobs in manufacturing, those aren’t the ones the employers are having trouble filling. Hungry people with no skills take those jobs.  The jobs that sit unfilled are good jobs with good salaries.  In the program mentioned above the placement rate is over 90% and and the starting salaries average close to $37,000 per year.  These are well paying jobs in good industries making the things our society needs to exist.  If the problem was simply one of skills we would have crossed it years ago with programs like this one.
     It’s a perception gap not a skills gap that we need to cross.

why do we engineer?

Why do we engineer?  We engineer to enable manufacturing!

Why do we manufacture?  We manufacture to enable society!

Our entire society is based on manufacturing,  this process of taking raw materials and turning them into useful goods.  The things we use the things we surround ourselves with even most of the food we eat has been manufactured before we see or touch it.

Can we make learning videos instead of teaching videos?

I can’t say I’m part of the ME Generation, and with that said, or rather not said, I can say that when I want to know something, unless I’m standing next to someone I’m pretty sure knows the answer, the first thing I do is Google it.  Then I look for a video (preferred) or a web page that explains it to me.  I’m forty three years old, or as I like to call it thirty-thirteen years old.  My generation literally grew up with computers.  I remember the first PCs.  I remember the launch of Macintosh.  I was there when our rich college friends first got PCs with color monitors and the rest of us reminded them that green is a color too.

Now as an engineering professor at a world renowned university my colleges and I regularly lament the fact that our students don’t do the reading and unless we somehow make it required they are likely to skip class in droves. I can tell you emphatically that that it is not their fault!  If we as faculty cannot engage them we deserve to be talking to an empty room and we are doing them and extremely expensive disservice.

So how do we engage them?  I’ve tried things like:

  • in class quizzes,
  • pre-lecture quizzes based on the reading,
  • post-lecture where the answers were only covered in lecture, not in the reading…
None of those things have really seemed to work for and I think it’s for the same reason that although I read almost continuously in high school, on the bus to school, on the bus back from school sitting in bed at night, sitting in the back of the class room,  I don’t think I ever finished one of the books assigned by my English teachers.

What does seem to work is to interact with them, to have a conversation, to ask questions and pull the answers out of them, to give them ownership of he class and its direction and to act as a guide on a journey of learning.  This can be hard to do as you might imagine with a lecture hall full of introverted engineering students.  I’ve been known to resort to throwing candy to (at) students who participate in my ongoing conversation and I’ve made it a habit of showing at least one YouTube video or clip in each class.  It’s these videos that I think are both part of the solution to the problem of engagement and part of the problem itself.

I’ve been using video as a teaching tool for as long as I’ve been teaching, and when I tell my class that they have to watch “my teaching video” —  of me talking about something — if they want to know — what I want them to learn — about that something; it doesn’t matter if the video is any good, I have a captive audience.  This has lead me to “produce” a few good videos and a lot of less good, even bad, videos.

A bad video is much much worse than a bad lecture.  I know from experience that some students will be embarrassed to fall asleep or even zone out in class but will think nothing of falling asleep in front of YouTube or more likely the’ll click on a more interesting video.
A good video can be much better than a good lecture the students can refer back to it they can share it with others they can help spread that knowledge.  A good video is a learning video not a teaching video.

Look for our new learning videos in May

Do engineers really need to know anything?

I’m not sure how frequently something needs to be repeated before it becomes cliché but there is a saying that I’ve heard so many times and that I’ve even used in class that I think fits, at least in the limited circles I travel in.

They say: “Engineers don’t need to know anything; they just need to know what book to look in.”

Well OK – That’s a little like saying anyone could be a great chef if they have the right cook book, and by extension must make Google  the world’s greatest engineer. (

I can tell you that as an engineer you do in fact need to be good at using reference materials, and knowing which book to look in certainly speeds the process.  In reality, though, simply owning the books isn’t enough.  You need a clear understanding of the fundamental physics of the situation, to know when you are approaching the edges of those laws, when the things you are doing might even expand those edges; and you need to be really good at solving those pesky word problems from middle school.

Einstein was once asked how many feet are in a mile. Einstein’s reply was “I don’t know, why should I fill my brain with facts I can find in two minutes in any standard reference book?”*
As an engineer you will remember the facts that you use often, as to the others, it is sufficient to understand that they exist, how to find them, and how to use them when you need to.


best and worst of the labs

This week I asked the students a few questions.  I had a few objectives:

  1. Evaluate lab instructors (based on student’s comfort level coming into the Lab Final)
  2. Evaluate students comfort level coming into the Lab Final
  3. Evaluate the the perceived value of individual lab exercises based on student feedback.
Students were asked to answer the following questions:
  1. What lab section are you in?
  2. If the Lab Final was right now, are you ready?
  3. Which lab exercise was the biggest waste of time?
  4. Which lab exercise was the most valuable?
Well, out of 73 people registered for the class 38 passed in a card.  Batting 500 on attendance on what was possibility the nicest day of the year isn’t too bad since all of the lectures are videoed and posted about 2 hours after the end of class.

If the Lab Final was right now, are you ready?

I first sorted the responses by section then counted the responses to the 2nd question.  
Section Ready Not Ready % Ready
? 1 1 50%
1 5 3 63%
2 7 4 64%
3 6 2 75%
4 9 3 75%
Total 28 13 68%

What have I learned?  

  • Sections 2 and 4 have the most lecture attendees. 
  • Sections 3 and 4 are the most confidant.
  • 68% over all confidence level is disappointing. 
It will be interesting to compare this with the results of the lab final by the end of next week.  Since the intent of the lab final is that everyone get’s 100%.

Which Exercise was the

biggest waste of time?

most valuable?

Exercise # Votes Exercise # Votes
Measurement 9 Base 19
Base 4 Cylinder 3
Engraving 3 Engraving 2
Deflection 3 Choke 2
Turning Experiment 2 Part Probing 2
Choke 1 Deflection 1
Part Probing 1 Tool Probing 1
Loading NC Code 1 Lathe Exercises 1

What have I learned?  

I suppose I’m not really surprised by the results.  We’ve known that we need to do something about the measurement lab, and we hadn’t started to talk about measurement in class when this question was asked so there was really no tie in to the lectures and I think it takes too long.  I think we can teach some important concepts in this exercise but we aren’t really doing a good job of it yet.

On the value added side I was really fishing. I didn’t really have a candidate in mind.  Based on the specific comments written on the cards it makes sense that the base was the big winner.  I’m assuming that it was the combination of cam and machining that went together and the fact that the students had to apply the things they’ve already learned that made it popular.

Watch the video at

Not Your Dad’s Manufacturing

Over the summer we had a summer camp for 7th and 8th graders.  The idea was to see if we could get younger kids excited about the technology of manufacturing so when they are making choices later in life they might consider training and careers in manufacturing.

I wrote an article about it for the experience Next Generation Manufacturer News Letter

The camp by all accounts was a big hit and we are hoping to do a series of these kind of camps next summer.

Eliminate a Lecture

For several years now I’ve been using surveys of the class for various reasons but mainly to get some feedback from the class but also to better understand if some teaching techniques were working or not without holding the student’s grades hostage while I try new things.
This term I’ve added a twist by handing out notecards at the beginning of class and asking for feedback directly.  I’m trying to understand how to best use this information and feedback to the class based on my reactions to the things they’ve said.
I think the best feedback I can give to the class is by reading the cards and commenting on video. So to watch the video click on the card above.
A quick summary is below: (remember these are votes to eliminate)
“Business stuff” 12 votes
Chip Thickness 10 votes
Art To Part 4 votes
NC Code 4 votes
I’m not currently thinking about eliminating any topics, but I may adjust emphasis or presentation of some of these topics.

first lecture of the term

Thanks for today if you were in class.  I love the beginning of the school year.  I’m excited, and the students are excited.

Discussion forum

I just finished reviewing the discussion board and answering questions.

  1. The link to the safety quiz is fixed
  2. There was question about the Haas Mill Safety manual, the correct link is: 
  3. simply forwards you to you will need to use your WPI username and password to access the page.


On reviewing the class capture I noticed there were a few things I think I missed

  • SharePoint site (lab instructions and reference)
I seem to have forgotten to explain that the SharePoint site that you can access by typing houses all of the lab instructions and the forms for the WDT lists. It is a WPI server and requires that you log in with your wpi credentials.  If you are on a computer logged into the WPI ADMIN domain you will be able to access the site without logging in again.
Please note that all of the quizzes including quizzes are on the myWPI page and all of the lab instructions and reference materials are on the SharePoint site.

Watch Do Teach, a practical approach to lab instruction

I read somewhere that lazy people make the best inventors.  I’ve also heard that necessity is the mother of all invention. Well, my mother raised a lazy inventor!  I’m always looking for an easier way to do things and have in the past spent at least a day automating a data entry system when it would have only taken a few hours to enter the data manually.  I may have missed on that one, but I did learn about data entry and some automation techniques that I have used successfully and more quickly for other tasks.
Tasks that are ripe for automation are frequently simple and repetitive.  In the spring of 2006 I took over responsibility for teaching between two and three hundred engineering students per year how to program and operate CNC Machine tools to make parts and assemblies that they have designed.  Over the years lab use has increased and now over one thousand students per year are doing work in the facility about half of them use one or more of the CNC machine tools.  I’ve done this with two full time staff members plus countless student lab assistants and pear learning assistance.  Even with that help it only works because we have automated a significant amount of the instruction.
How many times can you explain that the green button turns the machine on?  For me it was about 64 times.  By the time the 2ndbatch of 64 arrived I had written a 14 page quick guide that included information about starting the machine changing tools and jogging as well as instructions for loading code and running programs.  The guide was deployed as a PDF document on computers located next to each machine tool.  This was the beginning of the automation, but far from the end.
In those early days each class had 64 students divided into sections of 16 students and the course was offered 4 times per year.  We have since expanded the enrolment to 72 students total but the overall layout remains the same.  Each student has 4 hrs of lab per week for a total of 28 hrs of lab per term.  With an average of 70 students per term times 28 hours per term times 4 terms per year that’s about 800 total hours of lab instruction and over 58,000 student hours of lab instruction that I’ve been responsible for.
In those almost 60,000 hrs, you might say I’ve learned a lot of students, but more importantly I’ve learned a lot about teaching and learning especially about lab instruction.  The most important thing I’ve learned is that the best instructor is the one who has just completed the exercise they are teaching as long as they understand what they did and why, and the worst instructor is the one who is bored with the exercise, could do it with their eyes closed, and would rather just do it for the students because it would be faster.
How do you get the best instructor in front of the students?  We did it by developing lab instructions that were simple and easy to understand (kind of like assembling furniture from IKEA) and then developing a system that allows the student who just finished the exercise to be the instructor for the student who just watched them do it.  We call it watch-do-teach, wdt.  I understand it is similar to the system used in medical schools where it is sometimes referred to as “watch one botch one.”  Since operating a machine tool isn’t brain surgery we generally avoid the “botch one” aspect with simple clear instructions, and by asking the students to show understanding of the instructions and the concepts before they even start the watch step.
Our system has evolved over the years and has produced some amazing results.  The first exposure is actually before the watch step and happens before the students arrive in lab.  Students are expected to review pre-lab materials and the lab instructions and then answer questions in a pre-lab quiz usually by the Sunday evening before we complete a given exercise
Once students complete the quiz they add themselves to a wdt list by filling out a web based form.  Once the students arrive in lab they are called to the machine tool or lab bench where the exercise is set up in the order they added themselves to the list.
To start an exercise the first two students are called up.  The first does the exercise while the second reads the instructions to them (the instructions are deployed on a computer at the machine tool.)  Once the first student has completed the exercise a third student is called up to watch, and the first student becomes the “instructor”, while the second student starts the do step of the process.
If a student is not available when they are called to the exercise a notation is made to the list indicating why they were unavailable and the next student is called.  If the bottom of the list is reached, and there are still students who have not completed the exercise we begin again at the top of the list of course skipping anyone who has completed the exercise already.
The entire process is facilitated by a group of three students who have previously completed the labs.  These three students are hired as pear learning assistants, PLAs.  The group is composed of a lead PLA, this is someone with several terms of experience teaching labs; and two les experienced PLAs.  The least experienced PLA is responsible for making sure that the students are called up in the correct order and that student are working on the correct exercises.   The third PLA is responsible for starting the exercises and helping troubleshoot student problems both at the machine tools and while working on CAM exercises.
Students not actively working on one of the exercises are expected to be present in one of the two computer classrooms in the lab working on self paced CAM exercises, learning how to program the machine tools.  When a student has a question about the CAM assignments they are encouraged to first ask their peers, and then find one of the PLAs.
This WDT system allows students who have never seen a machine tool before become safe and competent operators and programmers in just a few hours of “instruction”.  It includes constant re-exposure to key concepts and the exercises are intended to build on each other.

Can you train a Machinist on a CNC machine tool?

They say that a Swiss machinist apprentice starts with a piece of steel, a file, and a micrometer and are told to make a cube.  I don’t know the truth of this assertion but it has a sort of elegance.   It can give the apprentice insight into measurement and metal removal.  It also lets them appreciate the ease of using a milling machine later in their training to complete the same task in minutes.  It brings to mind books like Ivanho where we can almost feel what it is like to grow up in a feudal castle and go through the steps from page to squire and then knighthood or even apprentice, journeyman, and master.
When I started teaching people to program and operate machine tools I was tasked with taking engineering students and enabling them to use the equipment to make something they have designed.  I wasn’t given 7 years to take them through an apprenticeship program or even 7 months to train them I was given 7 weeks and only four hours a week of lab time.  We started on the first day making chips in a CNC lathe. 
I knew that the “old-timers” insisted that students first understand how to use a manual machine before operating a CNC tool.  They argued that you needed to have a feel for the process, with your hands on the handles controlling the feed, feeling the cutting forces, and vibrations of the process.  Since these were the “old-timers” that taught me I believed them.  The problem was I hadn’t used a manual machine tool for 10 or 15 years and could barely remember how to turn it on it wouldn’t have been safe for me to teach them with a manual machine.
In that first 7 week term the students and I taught each other how to program and use the machines.  In the seven  years since that first day I’ve had hand in the instruction of thousands of students most of them engineering students although recently we’ve been using the engineering students to help train CNC operators and setup technicians. 
The system we have developed involves the use of standalone multimedia teaching lessons that any pair of students can step through the series of lessons taking turns in the role of student and instructor.  The lessons are intended to teach safe use of the equipment and to allow the students to become familiar and comfortable with the controllers and setup procedures.  The theory is that this system enables us to use students to teach each other the simple aspects of programming and using the equipment allowing the staff to help them understand more complex and nuanced issues dealing with complex fixturing and complicated tooling and tool path selection.  The reality is the students end up handling the most complex setups with very little help as the staff members tend to be interrupted too often to concentrate on anything complex.
Through the years I’ve traveled to meetings and met with instructors from all over the world.  The training methods we’ve developed are frequently a topic of discussion.  We almost always get to the question of the missing value of our students not getting a chance to feel the cutting forces through the handles.   In the beginning I was a little defensive when taking these questions it seemed there may be some validity.  In all of these meetings we would tour the local teaching institutions and local manufacturing facilities.  I began to notice quickly that in the only places I saw row after row of manual machine tools was in the schools.  Frequently the manual machines had been donated to the school by a company that was closing or upgrading to CNC equipment.
With that realization forming in my mind I began to look critically at our teaching methods and their lack of manual machine tools.  The arguments for starting with manual always revolve around the idea that machinists need to have a feel for the process to understand the influence of changes in feed, speed, and depth of cut.  They will tell you that you need to have this feel for the process to truly understand what is going on and make good parts.  It reminds me of a story I heard about a WWI fighter pilot visiting a Messerschmitt factory at the beginning of WWII and telling the engineers that the first thing the need to do is remove the cockpit glass so the pilots can feel the wind in their faces.  If the pilots can feel the wind they will know how fast they are going.
All of the CNC machine tools I’ve used have a power meter so I quickly began to discount the wind in the face / feel the force arguments.  It is not hard to convince the students that power is directly related to cutting force.   The other argument I’ve heard returns us to the feudal system.  You will appreciate the easier methods more if you’ve done the work the hard way.  This argument even extends to the discussion of teaching G-code or CAM first.  One of my colleagues likes to point out that is like saying you need to ride a horse from Boston to Worcester before you can appreciate the Mass Pike.
If we look critically at the real need and the value we can add to our students we need to consider the types of jobs they are doing and the type of equipment they will be using.  Just because I learned it that way doesn’t mean I should teach it that way.  In my experience starting with CNC is faster, safer, and creates qualified machinists that meet the needs of today’s industry.  Auto technician training doesn’t start with the Model  T.