Stopping an oil spill

You may remember that there was a rather large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few months ago. It caused something of a public furore not to mention a lot of problems between the oil company B.P. and the U.S. Government. Being British I am going to swiftly steer clear of the politics of this situation and say that this blog post is not about that.

I was thinking recently about the skills that were actually required in dealing with a situation as potentially catastrophic as this huge oil leak. We had a situation where there was a huge amount of oil flowing into the sea and potentially washing ashore  effecting wildlife and the livelihoods of many people in the area.

The problem (and a huge one it was) was to plug the leak and stop the oil. How do they do that? I remember thinking at the time that it can’t just be a matter of coming along and putting a big cap over the top of the leak and stopping the flow.

The engineers and scientists who were working on this had to work together (collaboration) and come up with creative solutions to the problem (real life problem solving).  I wondered how much of their education had prepared them for this eventuality. I suspect that many of them were educated in a traditional way and that they had been very successful at providing answers to very specific test questions. They had learnt to write answers that they knew would appeal to examiners and get them academic success. They had probably done a research degree to get their doctorate or Masters where they had looked at all of the latest research into some narrow aspect of their subject (for example: how do  stress pressures effect the load bearing of support cables in suspension bridges?”).

Now,they were being asked to come up with a creative solution to a very very difficult problem. As you know it took them quite a few attempts to finally manage to control the situation. This situation reminded me of the events that followed the potential disaster of Apollo 13 and its crew dying in space after there was massive damage to their spacecraft.

The world watched in awe as scientists and engineers had to work together to come up with an out-of-the-box solution to a very difficult problem. Someone must have come up with the idea that the astronauts could attempt to get into the Lunar Landing Module and then fly this craft back to Earth when it was not designed to do so.

It was one of the most creative answers to a problem in history. It worked. It required  skills that many of the people working at NASA at the time would not have been taught in their education.

I think that we need to be aware of the words of Professor Yong Zhao of Michigan State University who has been saying for some time now that in the globalised inter-connected world that we live in now education must be about collaborative skills (such as those needed with getting thoughts together to answer a  massive problem  in Houston in 1970 and in stopping an oil leak just a few weeks back in the Gulf of Mexico) and it needs to be about creativity and originality about thinking outside the box and creating new products or new solutions to problems.

Professor Zhao  has been saying these things in the backdrop to a time where education is becoming more and more based on  test taking in a narrow curriculum.

As day follows night there will be some other major disaster or potential catastrophe for people to deal with in the future. Will the engineers and scientists be up to the task? I hope so. I am more hopeful when I see that some schools and colleges are not letting themselves be confined by a straight-jacked curriculum and a testing regime. I am thinking of places like the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia Pa., where they are involving their students in using the most up to date technology in a collaborative, skills based manner that involves creativity at its heart… creativity that is linked to science and engineering… which is why the students produced in institutions such as this may well be ready to meet the challenges and problems of the future…. and maybe some of them will be there if there is another oil spill!

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