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The tip-over phenomenon: Why can’t Johnny read?


Many of you know that Shirley and I have had many young wards over the last several decades – about 30 at last count. I think what we have learned from them is applicable to engineering.

Our latest ward was a tough one to get going. It took us a month to have the tip-over phenomenon happen. Let me explain tip-over. The term was popularized by the book, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. The idea behind the term is that changing the way we approach problems can lead to different solutions.

The concept can be used to teach reading. Many people under the age of 35 do not read. I don’t mean that they can’t read. I mean that their recreational input is via iPod, television, games and movies, instead of books. Some of my motorcycle-riding friends are incarcerated. I used to send them books. A letter from one of the recipients suggested that I send only books to inmates older than 35 because those younger than that don’t read. How do we turn around this TV infection?

This brings me back to children and engineering. Our latest 12-year-old student was in the seventh grade, but had difficulty reading at this level. Formal education methods did not seem to work, so we picked up some Spider-Man “graphic novels” – a favourite cartoon of the student. A flame flickered within him. Next came the Harry Potter series. Within two weeks, he overdosed on books, reading continuously and ignoring the television. He tipped over. We were encouraged by this immediate success.

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Once he was sold on reading, we got him interested in math. I remember the day well. I went to my upstairs studio in the barn and found him engrossed in algebra. To my surprise, this kid understands math that the general public does not understand.

About now you might want to know our secret to getting this kid interested in learning. We don’t have one. There is no magic bean. What we do have is resolve. It takes work.

We listen to the student. And we know that we must deal with the world that is, and not the world that should be. Remember that, because this technique can be applied to engineering.

Where are the future engineers coming from? What skills will they need? How can we make our profession more dynamic and interactive to attract the future workforce? My suggestion: By accepting change and not wishing for the good old days. The truth is that the good old days were not all that good.

I have noticed that professional organizations are having a hard time maintaining and servicing membership. The ones that grow are AARP (the former American Association of Retired People), National Rifle Association (NRA) and Project Management Institute (PMI). Why? Because they meet a perceived need. PMI, for example, had only 30,000 members in the 1990s. The institute, however, managed to use certification as the stimulus for membership, and persuaded many organizations to call for PMI certification in the contract. This was a component of the tip-over in membership, which is now made up of more than 200,000 professionals.

We are trying to use these principles to tip-over ISA (Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society). North American engineering needs stimulation and growth. Innovation, communication and growth are stagnating. Jim Pinto, long-time industry expert, has agreed to convert his latest columns and book into a Podcast. The bottom line is that we will offer information over channels of choice. We will not complain about the young not appreciating the old ways, but instead we will adapt our organization to the needs of these future members.

To that end, ISA will teach writing that is readable and enjoyable to casual visitors. Most organizational writing reads like an insurance policy or the new governance rules for taxation. Another concept is to have an innovation alley at trade conferences that showcase innovative technologies not necessarily related to the conventional wisdom, at no cost to the young firms involved. I am hosting two such alleys – one at ISA Automation West in Long Beach, Calif. in May, and another at ISA Expo in Houston, Texas in October. The idea is to open minds, just like I did with my foster kid when I introduced him to the Spider-Man comics.

Many of my friends and clients are manifestly interested in this virus of success. The experiment is in its early stages, but hope persists for success. If you give a lot, expect a lot. And if you don’t get what you need, adapt.


Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at morley@barn.org.


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