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Letter to the Editor
Staying Ahead of the Curve

How do you stay ahead of the curve? First, you have to understand what curve you are on. Second, every one of us has to forge a professional responsibility to truth and to collective, good decision-making that guides the trajectory of our common curve. We are confronted with many tangents on the curve.

I received a one-credit course on using a slide rule in my first semester of engineering. Later, when I developed and taught CAD technician and GIS technician programs, I was challenged to stay current on emerging hardware, software and networking technology. Convincing my college administrators that we needed to frequently upgrade computers, purchase software licenses and train instructors was sometimes a greater challenge.

Our learning curve is influenced as technology advances and as our intellectual awareness matures. We become more aware of the consequences of our actions. Obviously, we can also choose to ignore consequences and wisdom. Undoubtedly, some decisions set us on a path that has no point of return.

Edward Wenk Jr., in the epilogue of his 1979 book, “Margins for Survival, Overcoming Political Limits in Steering Technology,” provided an astute observation on personal responsibility and self-discipline:

“Yet the heart of the matter lies in our proclivity to fasten on the short run, in Western society, with hedonistic abandon. We seem to have spun a cultural web where the predilection for the short run may constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy that by benign neglect of the longer run, there may be none. To herald economic growth as an end in itself, to acquire the fashionable and popular symbols of contemporary existence, to focus only on living and being, and to abdicate personal responsibility to government or third-party institutions, reflect a melancholy fact that we have neglected a higher order of social guidance; we have abandoned a moral hierarchy.” (p. 181)

Wenk realized the importance in helping people understand the ills of the public decision apparatus. He correctly diagnosed the disenfranchisement associated with decision-making beyond the reach of common citizens.

“The problem is not just information for managing complexity and the growing pains of a large social system, but keeping it within bounds of citizen comprehension. The learning curve for our society seems to be lagging requirements for citizenship. The condition of ignorance arises from the absence of shared data and translation for wider understanding.” (p. 134)

Unfortunately, we encounter too many opportunistic con artists and unqualified people who are ready to exploit technology, who ignore the downstream consequences and who don’t give a whit about integrity. We must gird our courage to call out this dangerous behavior that jeopardizes us all.

There seems to be an increased political emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in our educational system. I have been heartened by a few educational champions who are promoting STEAM (the “A” in STEM represents “arts”).

During my career, I have frequently found that solving STEM-related problems is challenging. But just as frequently, the STEM-related aspects are relatively easy compared to the social, psychological, economic and political aspects. Additionally, a good understanding of arts and humanities is essential for effective problem-solving. Specialization in disciplines can offer advantages, but so does diversity. We need to heed the pitfalls of focusing too narrowly on solving problem facets while ignoring or discounting the complexity of the problems and their side-effects. Helping learners synthesize good decisions is the essence of education.

– Roger R. Patocka, PE