December 19, 2008

An explanation, an article, and a memelet...

First of all I thought it would be worth posting a little more of an explanation about the title of this blog. Legend has it that the physicist Ernest Rutherford walked into his lab one day and announced "Well boys, we are very short of money so we must begin to think." I like this quote because it has always seemed that having a lot of money enables a professor to avoid much of the hard work of thinking. Actually it is probably worse that that; having money interferes with thinking because of all the damn paperwork that goes along with grants.

For some time I've thought we in the United States have been slowly bankrupting ourselves. I am afraid that the "good times" at universities where faculty who spend time grant writing are flush with money may soon come to an end. If or when this happens all of us in engineering education are going to be challenged to think very hard about how we can realize the change we talk about without much in the way of resources. Thanks to the work of many individuals in the science and engineering education community what to do is becoming clear- what we need to think about is how to make the changes happen...

An interesting article came out in Science this week (vol. 322, p. 1795) that looks at the importance of science faculty trained in education. The article is a short read and worthwhile just for the references. The main conclusions are the value of SFES's (Science Faculty with Education Specialties) in addressing many of the educational needs of the US and the dangers of the job. To quote the article, "Almost 40% of the 59 SFES were “seriously considering leaving” their current jobs... [those faculty hired into science education positions] most commonly reported that they were considering leaving because their science education efforts were not valued or understood. [Those faculty who were hired for research but turned into science educators], in contrast, reported being overworked and burned out."

Amen to that! The myth of being an excellent researcher and excellent teacher is just that for most of us. A myth. Lots of studies have found no correlation between performance in research and teaching but my dean hasn't read those studies. He still wants to hire a superman. This article supports the efforts of some forward-looking programs to value engineering educators and build community among them. I just hope more administrators take notice.

The following doesn't qualify as a meme, hence the made up name "memelet". I saw this clever cartoon today that made the point that most "mad scientists" were really "mad engineers". Not to belittle the value, methods, and contributions of science but sometimes all you want is to do something not understand it to the Nth degree. It has always seemed to me that we have gone too far towards science and don't always recognize the value of the engineer.

December 17, 2008

Another call for change...

I was directed to the article linked above by First Bell, a service that provides daily summaries of news on engineering and engineering education to ASEE members. The article from EE Times is worth reading if you haven't been following the debate in why engineering education needs to be reformed. In brief, James Plummer, Stanford's dean of engineering, calls for ten reforms in how engineering is taught. All ten are actually feasible and realistic goals for any porogram. Of course to nobody's surprise it sounds like Stanford does all ten, but one wonders how well...

Why do I think this article is important? In the first place it reflects the increasing calls for significant, and perhaps even radical, changes in how we teach engineering by an ever more vocal minority. Those espousing change include more and more deans, department heads, and other administrators who have the authority and budgets to make such change happen. The other reason this article is important is that it provides a list of ten things an individual faculty member can actually do to improve how students are taught engineering. Pick one, any one. How can you make it happen on your campus?

From my own recent experience I found the a little bittersweet in comparing the attitude of Stanford's dean with those at my own university. Last week I had a chance to sit down and talk with an administrator in my own engineering college about educating students. He complained that engineering education hadn't published any studies that showed improving how instructors taught resulted in improvements in learning. His opinion was that all the engineering education literature focused on designing new, resource-intensive labs that most programs couldn't implement. I'm not surprised by this ignorance- it wasn't that long ago that I was as poorly informed.

So today I e-mailed the administrator a nice literature review created byJeff Froyd at Texas A&M University on the effectiveness of active learning. You can find a copy on the Engineering Students for the 21st Century website. It is definitely worth reading if you are wondering if there are ways to change traditional teaching to improve how well students learn.