Technical Intuition – Preparing Students for Work at the Human Technology Frontier

Joyce Malyn-Smith, STELAR Co-PI

We live in a world driven by technology, where discovery and innovation occur at the intersections of disciplines. If we want our students to be the discovers and innovators of tomorrow, we need to prepare them with the skills found at those intersections. To succeed in this “human technology frontier,” students will need to be ready to use tools and processes that integrate both technical and academic skills and knowledge, as well as the dispositions found in dynamic, interdisciplinary teams.

What do core skills found at the intersections of disciplines look like? Many people believe that when disciplines connect in the context of addressing a problem, the skills needed to solve the problem are the same skills found within the disciplines grounding and defining the problems. In this framing, if one discipline (computer science) is red and the second discipline (physics) is blue, the skills and knowledge needed to solve the problem can be found in the mosaic of discrete “red and blue” skills/knowledge grounding those two disciplines.

I believe that this “mosaic” framing of interdisciplinary skills and knowledge falls apart as an approach to preparing future-ready youth. The perspective is too simplistic in relation to what we are learning about the complexities and pace of change in a world of work driven by technology. In addition to the mosaic of skills/knowledge that grounds individual disciplines, what emerges from the interaction of discipline red and discipline blue is “purple”—something new, different, and distinct. Not red, not blue, but a mixture of the two. Further, as more disciplines interact, more “new” skills will  emerge. These new skills are vividly apparent in high-tech work.

Recently, I interviewed Jonathan Smith, a Senior Principal Software Engineer who works with an interdisciplinary team of biologists, chemists, physicists, data scientists, and mathematicians at a biomedical research and development firm associated with Harvard and MIT. Smith’s team creates new computational methods for genomic data that provide insights into disease, treatments, the normal function of cells, and how complex biological systems function. I asked Smith if his team uses new skills to discover and innovate—skills that he was not taught in school. He said “Yes!” and went on to describe the “technical intuition” that members of his team ask each other to contribute during their team meetings.

As Smith put it, “Unlike the way most people think about intuition, ‘technical intuition’ is the ability to use a tool or resource in a way it has never been intended to be used, to solve a problem it was never intended to solve.” When I asked him for an example he said, “You are confronted with a door that is stuck and will not open. The door has no doorknob. You try to pull and tug but there is no way to grip the door with your fingers. The only tool at hand is a screwdriver. A screwdriver was intended to be used to turn screws. Trying the simplest, intended solution, you insert the screwdriver into the door lock and try turning it. This does not work. However, having expertise in using a screwdriver and other tools in multiple ways, you realize you might also use the screwdriver to pry the door open. Applying this idea to various parts of the door eventually works in getting the door open enough for your fingers to pull it fully open and you succeed in opening the door.” At every team meeting, when confronted with a new challenge, Jonathan and his cross-disciplinary colleagues ask each other, “What is your ‘(technical) intuition’ about how we should move forward?”

Although we might think of this as a simple solution using a simple tool, Jonathan noted, “This kind of thinking is opening the door to new understanding of diseases of genetic origin. In terms specific to our industry, it has been extremely valuable when we developed novel joint biochemical and computational methods for identifying, quantifying, and comparing gene expression data. This has led to a massive data yield increase which enables fine-grained inspection of potential disease-causing genetic mutations. The more data we have to work with, the closer we get to our objectives.”

Unlike the kind of intuition with which most of us are familiar, technical intuition can be taught and measured. It demands core knowledge and skills found in disciplines (the mosaic), as well as practice with and expertise in using tools. With this in mind, what do teachers need to do today to help students develop the skills they will need to apply their technical intuition in future work? Research into the outcomes of students’ tinkering and playing with technology points the way.  

For example, when I worked with a team to examine how youth in National Science Foundation-funded projects develop computational thinking skills, we found that once students learn how to use technologies, they want to modify them for their own purposes. This means that opportunities and encouragement to use technologies are vital.

Students who will leave school more “advantaged” in developing technical intuition are those who begin using tools and developing skills early. The following three groups of students may have a leg up on others as they begin to develop expertise in using tools years before others have opportunities to do so:

  • Career and Technical Education (CTE) students, who begin developing skills in using tools in early CTE in Grade 6 and 7 when they are exploring various career fields
  • “Power Users of Technology” or youth who engage with technology early and often, both in and out of school
  • Youth who build/make things with their hands and minds

An example that many teachers and parents see every day: When students who are online gamers become expert at playing games, they want to learn what cheat codes they can employ, or how to hack the system, to give them an advantage in winning. Many go on to build powerful gaming computers and set-ups. Some learn to stream their gaming on online platforms and start to track and analyze their follower and subscriber data. They consult with “colleagues” (fellow gamers) who bring expertise with different cheat codes, games, platforms, and analytics tools.  

Other students might want to modify a toy to have it perform in a different way. An engineering example: After several years of building with blocks, one child used cardboard boxes to build a toy dog about 18” tall.  He taped the boxes together and put a leash on the dog. But when he pulled the dog it kept falling over. To pull the dog on a leash, he taped small toy cars to the bottoms of the dog’s paws which allowed the dog to roll, and then spent the afternoon taking the dog for a walk around the house. When students learn how to “modify” their technologies, our research tells us that they then want to create their own technologies. 

A Power Gamer will want to create their own games or apps, and an engineering-inclined student will want to build new structures. When teachers encourage students to engage in this “Use, Modify, Create” sequence, raise career awareness, and guide career exploration, they fuel youth for success in future workplaces that will demand technical intuition. It is especially vital for teachers to provide youth from groups historically excluded from STEM careers with this encouragement and support—as well as actively working to address systemic barriers, cultivate a sense of belonging, and provide mentors and models with whom they can identify.

Below, I describe five key actions that teachers, schools, and districts can take to nurture students’ career development throughout their educational experience and help them develop the foundations for technical intuition. 

Begin skill development early. Ensure that all students leave middle school with exposure to computer science (CS) classes and early CTE programs in order to build their awareness and foundational skills using CS and engineering tools. Provide students with opportunities to build, create, and problem solve.

Make connections between the skills/knowledge students are developing and their worth in future workplaces. Many students don’t understand what employers will pay for or can’t articulate the skills they have developed. For example, I know one high schooler who, when asked if he was going to get a summer job, said that the local pizza place was hiring people to fold boxes. He did not understand the potential value to employers of his experience working with his father running cables to wire the computer labs at a local college.  

Help students learn to problem solve in teams. Create opportunities for students to collaborate and co-create. Engage them in working on projects, planning strategies to solve problems, and building and creating solutions in interdisciplinary teams. First, be sure to establish ground rules for equitable and productive teamwork. Throughout the process, monitor teams to make sure that everyone’s voice and input is heard and valued.

Provide opportunities for students to learn that failure paves the way to success. Successful discoveries and innovation do not occur with the first solution to a problem. Share stories of scientific discoveries that occurred only after years of experimentation, and stories of discoveries that occurred by accident. Find ways to acknowledge failure as a step towards solving a problem.

Encourage and reward out of the box thinking and experimentation. Every day, your students are “using screwdrivers to open stuck doors” without realizing it. Seek, acknowledge, and reward out of the box thinking and attempts to use tools in ways that they were not intended to be used.

We have found that students’ ability to breathe the air of technology and apply resources, tools, and skills in unprecedented ways in unpredicted contexts is becoming essential in multiple industries, regardless of the specific career field. Today, we can’t predict the jobs or technologies that our youth will experience in 10 years. Discovery and innovation is occurring very rapidly at the crossroads of highly technical STEM fields. We can and must, however, take steps to help our youth develop the technical intuition they need to thrive in those unknown environments.