The Yanks are struggling to make design more than a bolt-on. Everything is bigger in the United States; the Annual International Technology Education Association Convention held in Phoenix, Arizona, this month was no exception. Up to 20 simultaneous presentations, an auditorium to seat 2,000 delegates and an exhibition hall capable of fitting in two jumbo jets and various smaller craft put anything available in Britain into a micro-dimension.
Despite this vastness there's a remarkable similarity of concerns on both sides of the Atlantic: the quality and training of teachers; resourcing problems and the interface with industry. The large audiences for the presentation by HMI Mike Ives and other UK speakers reflected our common search for solutions. Some of the more acclaimed papers, such as those from the teacher training programme at Trenton State College,New Jersey, showed how effective is the British influence.
At the heart of US concerns was the effort to include design as a meaningful concept in a technology curriculum dominated by production. Design was, indeed, a recurring problem-word. Many of the conversations with British visitors included, "How do you get this thing called design to work in the technology curriculum?" Many still saw design as some previously unfamiliar feature of technology that now had to be bolted on.
As the ITEA trade exhibitors showed, the hearts and minds of many technology educators in North America remain focused on computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM) rather than computer-assisted design (CAD). The largest crowds were admiring production machines rather than drafting systems; it was CAM rather than CAD that pulled in the orders. Only a few brave exhibitors were offering "minds-on" experience and highlighting the urgent need to upgrade the intellectual calibre of technology education.
Solutions were sparse. Attempts to improve the quality of teacher intake are achieving only modest success; some of the major teacher-training establishments are regularly having to make special cases to their institutions to allow a growing number of their undergraduate recruits to gain admission, so modest are their entry qualifications. The shortage of good candidates worryingly matches some current recruitment problems in the UK.
One widely-canvassed solution was to achieve closer links between technology and science teaching; a number of successful high schools and colleges reported such initiatives. But in many the implicit arrangement seemed to be that science teachers attended to the intellectual input while technology teachers focused on the practical implementation. This was almost made explicit by the keynote speaker, Marian Anderson, who reported on his Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development investigation of science, maths and technology in 17 countries. His enquiries certainly reinforced the importance of technology in the curriculum but not, alas, the importance of the technology teacher's contribution.
Yet major changes in American technology education still seem to lie in the distant future. In its search for a confident, upbeat theme to walk away with the Convention settled for the current US portmanteau explanation - attitude. Simply expressed this argues that if one has the right attitude one can carve one's way out of any shortcomings in training, resources, recognition, even, dare one say it, capability. It's a risky basis on which to ensure the technological future of a nation, as several British visitors quietly whispered to their US friends.
For those who would not confront these problems, the Wild West Rodeo and Bunk House meal in the desert offered reassurance that the world was still a joyous, fulfilling and traditional place.
John Eggleston is visiting professor of educational research at the University of Central England