If you ask me

In this issue we look at the influence of Lego on developing minds and talk frankly about the recession.

It starts with a brick 

For over 25 years of teaching at MIT, I have made my first class assignment this question: "Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?" Assigning my students a paper on childhood objects sometimes provokes surprise, even anxiety. Students ask: "Why write about an object? Will I be able to find one?" But then, once they begin, there are calls to parents to check their memories. Conversations with siblings. They go home for vacation and return to MIT with an object in tow. In class sessions reporting on these objects, students have trouble keeping to their allotted times. It is clear that the assignment stirs something deep.

Over the years, so many students have chosen Lego bricks as the key object on their path to science that I use them as a constant to demonstrate the wide range of thinking and learning styles that constitute a scientific mindset. Stereotypes about scientific work have scientists, engineers, and designers thinking through problems in a planner's style, a top-down, divide-and-conquer approach in which objects are kept at a distance. Some scientists do use this style. Others move back and forth from top-down planning to tinkering, thinking by manipulating objects. Yet the planner's style has become frozen in the public imagination as what it means to think like a scientist.

Looking at how children play with universal objects such as Lego leads us to a greater understanding and respect for the many ways of thinking like a scientist, engineer and designer. Some children use Lego to create highly realistic structures. For others, only fantasy buildings hold any interest. Some maximise their Lego resources by constructing hollow buildings to conserve bricks. Others try to use all their bricks in one structure, no matter how baroque the result. Some follow instructions; others throw them away. Some keep their constructions as trophies; others destroy them when complete. For one child, the most exciting thing about Lego is the Lego bump - it suggests the idea of an indivisible particle; for another, building with Lego bricks is less exciting than thinking about ways to sort them.

Science is fuelled by passion, often a passion for objects that is as important to a scientist as a painter's for paint and canvas, or a poet's for words. And yet, a passion for things is often regarded as somehow suspect - consider the phrase 'boys and their toys', which undermines boys' enthusiasms for the world of things, and discourages girls from admitting their own.

If we want more people to do science, we need to stop disparaging young people's passion for objects. We need to understand that playing with things helps children learn a variety of approaches to discovery and problem solving that they take with them into their later lives. And we need to recognise the importance of playing with objects in enthusing the next generation of scientists, engineers and technologists.

Sometimes play isn't just play. In play, we immerse ourselves in objects. And it turns out that we love the objects we think with and we think with the objects we love.

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé professor of the social studies and science and technology at MIT, and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Her book, 'Falling for Science, Objects in Mind', is reviewed on p24.

Don't become a statistic

By Nick Smith, Management editor

If you're ever tempted to think that of all the market sectors E&T magazine covers, management is the one least likely to generate news, then think again. I'll admit that not much of it is good news, but since the recession (let's stop calling it 'the current climate') really started to bite, I have been inundated, flooded, awash - use any hydrological metaphor you wish - with management stories.

These stories take the form of redundancies, the condition of the pound, interest rates, budget cuts, decreased output levels and companies going out of business. Most arrive as media releases from industry bodies whose press offices, it would seem, have never been so gleefully busy.

I've got one announcing the publication of a joint survey commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and consultants KPMG. It says that there are even bigger jobs culls on the way, with UK job prospects deteriorating 'at an alarming rate'. For those still with jobs, the bad news is that the average pay rise is shrinking. Chief economic advisers are brought in to intone solemnly on the crisis.

According to one, the "survey underlines the urgent need for alternative monetary policy measures - so called quantative easing - to ameliorate the risk of a downward spiral becoming entrenched and turning what already looks like a grim recession into something even worse". Management speak for: "somebody do something or we're heading to hell in a handcart." Incidentally, I love the mixed metaphor of the spiral becoming entrenched.

You don't need to be Maynard Keynes to work this out. But the question is, what are we going to do about it? Here at E&T, we run our own management forum called 'On the Coaching Couch'. Originally, it was intended to be an agony column providing advice to accidental managers unsure as to how they might provide proper career development for their staff.

We drafted in the expertise of Janet Wright, a chartered engineer and professional management coach whose job is to give impartial guidance through the myriad of training and coaching options. Increasingly, her mailbag has been filled with questions from managers not knowing how to hold onto their staff or, even worse, their own jobs.

I don't have a swanky survey here to prove my point, but I'd be prepared to bet the shirt on my back that the main concern of managers in the engineering and technology sectors at the moment is job security. Companies are merging, overworked managers are inheriting new departments, established teams are being 'downsized' and no one knows upon whom the guillotine will fall next. Perhaps we should rename 'On the Coaching Couch' as 'A Quiet night in with Madame Defarge'?

To find out some of the issues involved, turn to our extract from our online archive of management dilemmas on p80.

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