Monthly Archives: March 2014

Manual Dexterity of Millenials


A couple of weeks ago I made a presentation to a group of agricultural cooperative CEOs about the implications of technology in rural communities along with implications for future employees. I talked about a number of things that I usually discuss, including the use of social media and the Internet as tools for doing business in small towns and rural areas.

One idea I put out there was one I admitted that I had no research to back it up, but was simply an observation from my teaching over the past thirteen years. I mentioned that I felt my current students in general have lower manual dexterity skills than students did when I first began teaching. This comes from observing them working on things like constructing CAT5 network cables, or in one design class I teach, carving Jack-o-lanterns. (I am always amazed at how many students have never made a Halloween Jack-o-lantern.)

I watch them fumble with operating scissors, cutters, crimpers or any other hand tool. Even with things like hooking up a computer’s peripherals, setting up a camera & tripod, or studio lights, some students seem timid about using their hands to accomplish a given task. I have to wonder if so much screen time during childhood has affected their ability to do things in the physical world.

Like I said, I have no data to back up this observation, so I recently did a search of literature to see if anyone else sees it this way. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time looking into this, but I was only able to find one article that mentioned this phenomenon at all. It comes from the Oct 21, 2013 issue of Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News.

Joseph Kokinda, president and CEO, Professional HVAC/R Services Inc., Avon Lake, Ohio noted that millennials often lack the skills necessary to be successful in the HVAC industry, including cognitive thinking skills, manual dexterity, an understanding of science and math, an ability to be a leader and present a professional demeanor in the field, and the aptitude to communicate effectively with on-site customers.

From the same article… Carter Stanfield, program director, Air Conditioning Technology Department, Athens Technical College, Athens, Ga observed,

Fewer of these individuals spent their childhoods taking apart their bikes or playing with their dad’s tools. Most millennials don’t have a lot of kinesthetic mechanical experience that many people now in their 50s had.

To the agricultural CEOs I spoke with, this skill of manual dexterity is critical, and they told me as much. To me, this question of fading dexterity skills is fascinating, and could be a fun research project to explore at some point. I have to wonder if this is as true for kids in rural areas like where I live as it is for kids in the city.

I wonder if developing a “maker-space” or “hacker-space” might be a good antidote for this reluctance to get our hands dirty? I also wonder what others think about my suspicion that manual dexterity is becoming a lost art? Am I on to something here, or am I making more of this than I should?

Life’s Paradoxes


I have been reading Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search For Meaning recently. My daughter, who is struggling with the novel assigned in her 6th grad reading class, asked my about the book I’m reading. I told her it was assigned for a class I took several years ago, but admitted that I never actually read it thoroughly. Having a book assigned as reading in a class is a sure-fire way of taking every bit of enjoyment out of it, regardless of how good it is, I explained. I misplaced the book for a long time, but it was recommended by a friend and I wanted to have another crack at it, so when I recently found it, I decided it would be my reading for spring break.

If you are not familiar with this book, let me briefly summarize. Frankl survived years of suffering in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. As a psychiatrist stuck in a sad predicament, he naturally observed the human response to such conditions, and even developed a psychological treatment for the intense suffering. Although he calculated his chances for survival to be less than 1 in 20, he retained his will to live along with his human dignity through the ordeal.

To modern thinkers, all suffering is pointless and is to always be avoided. For Frankl, there is value in suffering well. I am not completely finished with the book, but I am getting the gist of what he is saying. There can be purpose in suffering, and we may not always know exactly what that purpose is. A part of the book that I recently read speaks of a couple of life’s paradoxes. One of these is the fact that whatever the mind fears and is fixated upon, often comes to pass. Think of the ball player at bat, fearing the strikeout. What is he or she likely to do? Strikeout of course. The other paradox is that which is desired the most, often cannot be achieved. For example, a person desires to achieve personal greatness, perhaps fame or wealth. Taking aim directly at these is less likely to succeed than is striving to become the best version of yourself, learning to capitalize on your gifts, talents and strengths.

A personal example for me has been working towards a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. The Ph.D. is the goal, I want to become a professor who holds a doctorate. Having as a goal – “becoming a doctor” doesn’t really work. Doing everything it takes to become a doctor is no real plan. It results in thinking such things as, “just tell me what I need to do to finish this thing,” a thought I am not proud to admit to thinking a few times over the course of my studies. What works instead is focusing on getting better at doing the things that doctors do and thinking the way doctors think. For someone pursuing a Ph.D., this is learning to love research, which is actually nothing more than learning to love learning, and being able to back up what you are learning with evidence. Once I immersed myself into the learning, and stopped fretting about earning the, things became more tolerable and meaningful.

Frankl advises those who fear something to embrace the fear and wish for ten times the amount of what is feared. One example he gave was a man who perspired too much, and was fearful of how much he perspired. He was to begin wishing for ten times the amount he usually perspired and formulate a plan for explaining to others his great capacity for sweat. Eventually, he forgot his anxiety about the issue and it resolved itself.

My take on all of this is that I need to continue working on embracing life’s sufferings more. Like the average modern thinker, I tend to avoid suffering at all costs, and loudly complain when forced to endure it. This is no inspiration to those around me. I feel like I’m learning, and getting better, but still have a long way to go. Working on this Ph.D. has not been easy. It has involved tremendous sacrifice, and there were actually times I’ve thought I would have preferred going back to my days in the Persian Gulf War. At least then, I was experienced, well trained, and knew what I was supposed to be doing. Getting a doctorate is not like that. There have been many times I’ve felt unworthy, incapable, and doubting if I were ever going to complete the thing. It has been an eight year process of carving out bits of my personal life to achieve my goal. Many of these bits of time have been in the wee hours of the morning when I could work undisturbed, and I would have to try to do my regular job on three or four hours of sleep. Functioning like that for very long makes it difficult not to complain, although I have been working at it.

I guess what keeps me going is a desire to achieve something for purposes bigger than myself. I have two kids I want to be an example to. Also, I hope to be an example to students who may be just like me. Many professors/Ph.D.’s I know come from families of scholars, and many grew up in or around cities with plenty of opportunities. I work for Kansas State University, a land grant university with the original focus of helping improve the lives of the people of Kansas, originally through the primary means of agriculture, which was how most people earned a living here at the time. Having grown up in small town-rural Kansas, this original purpose is still important to me. I like to help those who grew up and live here to improve their lives as well. As it turns out, my field, computer technology, is doing just that. People all across this state in rural areas are benefitting from the advances in computing, whether it is in agriculture, or starting some other venture in which location is now less of an issue thanks to computing and the Internet.

As far as the professoriate in Kansas goes, I think it is a great thing that students encounter professors from cultures and backgrounds other than their own. However, (and I don’t have any data to back this up) I would wager that a majority of the Ph.D. professors that K-State students encounter hail from locations other than the great state of Kansas. I just think it is good that students see examples from time to time of professors that have similar backgrounds as themselves, who have no background of great privilege or cosmopolitan upbringing.

People in the midwest have long had a reputation of being hard-working, but I sometimes wonder if this perception is changing. If I do manage to be successful in my pursuit of a doctorate, I can assure you it isn’t because I have some great intellect, or because I had a smooth path laid out before me; it was because I followed the examples of my parents and grandparents who persisted through adversity and worked hard with the opportunities that life presented to them.

I think Viktor Frankl is on to something, when he observed these paradoxes. The one thing that people can do to find meaning in life is to become the best version of themselves, in whatever situation they may find themselves. Even in a concentration camp, when there was no opportunity for creative expression he still found purpose and meaning in living his life as best as he was able, by serving and keeping his will to live as an example of hope to others.