October 9, 2009

Are we the next Wall Street? Thoughts on University 2.0

Two weeks from now our program will go through its hexennial, uh, sextennial...every six years, ABET visit.  As my teaching has evolved further from lecture/homework/test it becomes harder and harder to fit in with others' expectations for providing course artifacts.  Since I manage ABET data collection and evaluation for our program the last six months have been hectic, stressful, and resulted in some deep personal reflection on the university, its role in society, and its near-term future.

And this reflection has resulted in some chilling realizations.  I've commented in previous posts on reports from the Delta Foundation showing that the cost of education is not benefiting students, faculty battles with university administration over support, and the dramatic increase in new building that are occurring on my campus.  The other night, in the middle of sending out yet another round of reminders to faculty to pull their nose out of their research for the five minutes it would take to turn in ABET data that higher education may be the next Wall Street.  There is no-one more hated right now than Wall Street; that reviled house of filthy, venal, slimy, pandering reptiles whose unbridled greed wrecked the economy and may still wreck the country.

The rising cost of higher education effectively extracts more and more money from American families.  But rather than providing a better education, universities spend it on themselves.  Increasingly colleges turn their backs on our historic mission of educating tomorrow's engineers.  Faculty are rewarded for research.  Clearly some research has palpable benefits for society as a whole, but the effort and time required to do good research effectively detracts from the education of undergraduates.  The current economic crisis is stimulating discussion of whether a college degree is worth the expense and whether community colleges actually offer better value.

Like many others these reflections on how the internet and changes to society have impacted universities led me to the conclusion that while we're in trouble, it is possible to redesign higher education for the next century.  If you're interested in some concrete ideas click on the video link below...

September 7, 2009

Boldly going forward cause we can't find reverse!

I've been rolled under, savaged, and spit out in pieces by the start of school again. As H. L. Mencken said "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." So perhaps it isn't that surprising that the items that have caught my eye as I have skimmed through engineering education literature have had to do with broad scale reform of the entire educational enterprise.

The first article was from High Ed Morning and looked at the top ways students cheat. The article is very unscientific, but does look at the cheating modalities enabled by that newest fashion accessory, the cell phone. The article discusses how Simon Fraser University gives a new F grade for cheating (we have the same here at OSU) but concludes with the statement "Will a different kind of failing grade matter to students? Or do we need another solution?"

The Chronical of Higher Education in an article titled "The Canon of College Majors Persists Amid Calls for Change" looks at calls for radical changes to college curricula. This article focuses on changes in the content of majors and ways to more rapidly introduce new content into traditional disciplines. While several current efforts are briefly discussed, the Chronicle's take on reform is that the traditional system of curricula and departments won't change any time soon although majors are constantly updating themselves. I personally find the viewpoint taken by the Chronicle somewhat limited in that the article retains the assumption of a traditional degree program when discussing radical change.

The last article is from the website Fastcompany and focuses on "education 2.0 architects". Despite the trendy internet lingo phrasing and annoying ads on the site, it is a good article that summarizes briefly many of the challenges facing the higher education system in the 21st century. One of the better discussions is that "the edupunks are on the march..." highlighting the fact that lots of technological education is cropping up completely outside the college mainstream.

The article surveys some of the new ventures that are strategizing on how to begin "the endgame" for traditional universities. The include Flat World Knowledge and Peer2Peer University. One of the more interesting discussions is about Western Governors University where the program is assessment rather than course focused and faculty really do serve as mentors rather than lecturers. The article concludes by saying "The transformation of education may happen faster than we realize. However futuristic it may seem, what we're living through is an echo of the university's earliest history. Universitas doesn't mean campus, or class, or a particular body of knowledge; it means the guild, the group of people united in scholarship... Today, we've gone from scarcity of knowledge to unimaginable abundance. It's only natural that these new, rapidly evolving information technologies would convene new communities of scholars, both inside and outside existing institutions."

I agree. It is time for traditional institutions to begin to be nervous about the barbarians at the gates. Not because the barbarians are unmotivated, entitled, and materialistic kids who will sack the dignity of the institution, but because the barbarians may simply bypass the halls of academia. As the barbarians go so do the roads, trade, innovation, and development.

Note- a few days after I published this post an article in the New York Times points out that colleges are failing in the core mission.

July 24, 2009

Slow Education

Perhaps because I am an Aquarius born in the Year of the Dragon I tend to take on too much and am thus intrigued by the burgeoning "slow" movements as a way to make the social and cultural changes needed to implement a more sustainable society. Last night I read a "Slow Business Manifesto" proposing a set of principles for business to slow down, consider the needs of its employees, and work for something greater than profit. Perhaps view is naive, but as the manifest eloquently stated: "The only reason businesses that don't create their own products or provide their services with love survive, is by being cheaper".

Perhaps some of the tenets of the various slow movements could apply to how we educate our students. Perhaps the greatest authority on "Slowness" (other than the post office and my university's bureaucracy) is the World Institute of Slowness and their related site, Slow Planet. These organization have already published some thoughts on Slow Education; as the Aelius Donatus is reported to have said “pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt”- a plague on those who have proclaimed our bright ideas before us. The site links to a short video that provides a wonderful anecdote about Slow Education:

So what would Slow Education look like, what are principles one could use to frame a discussion of slowing down how we educate future engineers? Here is a start on a manifesto:
  • The teacher matters. Teaching does, and should, express your beliefs. For students to learn they need to learn both the material and also the values and attitudes of the teacher. Share yourself and develop relationships with your students. Be human.
  • Teaching changes you, for better or for worse. I see many colleagues that are bored with what they teach because they focus on covering content rather than making teaching a creative expression. If you are bored with your teaching you will become boring.
  • Teach what you love. Research has shown that the instructors attitude has a disproportionate effect on learning.
  • Content doesn't matter that much. Learning is about experience, not information. Since it is impossible to fully prepare even the best student for the range of careers available don't try to. Create meaningful experiences rather than grind through a list of required topics.
  • Acknowledge the full meaning of "life long learning", a phrase that is bandied about far too casually by people who should know better. Life-long learning means that people are expected to continue to learn throughout their lives and that this learning will occur at a pace and a direction that varies as much as individuals. If we accept that people really are life-long learners, we need to re-examine our educational system.

Slow Education is also defined by what it is not:
  • It is not a return to "the fundamentals". Knowledge, particularly technical knowledge is constantly changing and education needs to follow change closely.
  • It is not abandoning standards, rather re-examining standards and considering the human dimension or learning. Slow Education measures distance traveled, not how quickly one arrives at an arbitrary destination.
  • It is not a call for a cadre of professional engineering educators. Rather we need to recognize the time, cost, and challenge of educating new generations of engineers and reward those who choose to follow this calling.
  • It is not a refuge for poor teachers, demagogues, crack-pots, or curmudgeons. There are standards by which learning can be measured and methods that are more or less effective for achieving given learning goals. Slow Education simply recognizes that achieving goals is a reflective and iterative process.
Anyone have any other ideas on what a movement for Slow Education in engineering might look like?

June 29, 2009

The end of the world as we know it...

Lately I've been engaged in one of my least favorite past-times, political in-fighting. My university, firmly situated in BFE Oklahoma, has not yet felt the financial pressure many East Coast and West Coast universities are feeling. We tend to lag the nation and have been somewhat cushioned by increases in state revenue due to high energy prices. We're not immune though, and worry over next year's budget is palpable. The response of some administrators to budget pressures has been to require faculty to charge academic year salary on grants to help offset costs. As you might imagine there is push-back from faculty, especially since NSF has changed their salary policy to limit total grant-derived salary to two months per year.

While I am not directly involved in the budget process--a privilege/responsibility jealously guarded by administrators--it is not much of a stretch to see the money going to support costs of the new research buildings going up all over campus. There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which a panel from the Association of American Universities, an organization that represents top research universities, asked the National Academies to study whether the country needs fewer, but better, research universities.

This is an interesting question. On one hand it is logical to have doubts about the purity of the motives of a panel selected by an exclusive club. "You need to be spending more money on research, but don't waste your money on 'those' people. Your money would be much better spent at the 'right' schools... really, you can trust us!" My knee-jerk response is the one that ends with "...and the horse you rode in on.". The Stanford scandal showed what happens when university administration sees research as a source of unrestricted funding. On the other hand my (admittedly limited) experience as a graduate school at a research university and faculty member at a research "wanna-be" has driven home that there are deep cultural differences between institutions. Top research schools have a culture that supports the Herculean trial that is good research. While research is possible at other schools it is simply more difficult. As my favorite proverb states- "It is not just the mountain ahead, but the grain of sand in your shoe that wears you down". A thornier issue is that if large, second tier schools make the substantial investment in research facilities, as my university has chosen to do, it is likely that there are resources that are not flowing to student learning (discussed in a previous post).

Really it seems that the question comes down to culture. I don't buy the argument that just because a university has been successful in the past at research they should be on the "short list" for more research funding. I've sat on enough proposal review panels to know that the system already favors research schools. But I'm also experiencing first-hand the stumblings of a university trying to create the "cultural shift" required to rise in the ranks of research schools. What lessons can be drawn from schools that are efficient or effective at research (rather than simply do a lot of research)? How does one change a culture, and what is a realistic time constant for the change? What are the signs that a school is even open to cultural change? Without asking these questions--and doing the research necessary to answer them--the question of whether the US can afford the current number of research schools is simply throwing gasoline on the ego-pyre that is research.

May 31, 2009

Designing Engineers

I've been on the road a lot this month. First an NSF proposal review panel then a meeting of the EE departments that were awarded NSF Department Level Reform grants. After a short visit home it was off to an NSF Engineering Research Center site visit and I'm writing this just before a workshop in Baltimore at the CLEO conference on lasers. While I would love to be able to get a lot of work done from the road, I am never very efficient while I'm traveling so I tend to take books or articles instead. The type of reading that falls in the important but not urgent category, reading I don't get done in the office. By reading I both kill the tedious hours of air travel and assuage the Protestant guilt that comes with idleness.

On this trip I am reading Louis Bucciarelli's excellent book "Designing Engineers". I chose this book since my attempt to carve out a niche for myself in engineering education requires identifying a set of important problems; understanding the creative act of design overlaps my interest and experience. This book is blowing me away!

Through examples at three companies the book provides insights on the engineering design process and clearly illustrates how design is as much social as it is technical. The process of negotiation is shown as key to design as is how engineers represent themselves to their peers and managers. I debated requiring the book in my capstone design course, but on reflection realized that most engineering seniors probably don't have the base of experience to really draw insights from the book yet.

It has actually been nearly a month since I started this post, but got hung up in politics and getting ready for the ASEE conference. This weekend I ran into one of my former students at the wedding of another student and she was interested in teaching a course on success in engineering careers. So maybe I can incorporate this book in a way to help students succeed in their careers...

May 11, 2009


It is funny how one little piece of information can give you a new perspective on something you have known for years. For some reason I found myself looking up the meaning of the word "bismillah" the other day. Thank you Google. Did you know that two of the inmates in Guantanamo are named Bismillah?

This one little fact changed forever the way I listen to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. I know Freddy Mercury sang this long before the "War on Terror" but it still seems to presage modern events surprisingly well:

I see a little silhouetto of a man
Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango
Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me
(Galileo) Galileo (Galileo) Galileo, Galileo Galileo Figaro
I'm just a poor boy nobody loves me
He's just a poor boy from a poor family
Sparing his life from this monstrosity
This awful travesty
Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?
Bismillah! No, we will not let you go
Let him go
Bismillah! No We will not let you go
Let him go
Bismillah! We will not let you go
Let me go (Will not let you go)
Let me go (Will not let you go (Never, never, never, never))
Let me go, o, o, o, o
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
(Oh mama mia, mama mia) Mama Mia, let me go
Beelzebub has the devil put aside for me, for me, for me

After I published this two days ago I accidentally stumbled across the definitive Bohemian Rhapsody site...

May 3, 2009

Oh Joy! ABET time again!

It has been a hectic month with many deadlines and trips rearing their head in May like the weeds in my neglected lawn. One of the activities that has been eating my lunch is preparing the ABET report which is due sometime this summer.

As with all organizational reviews, reports are called for; the ABET report is a doozy. And like all reports on whose outcome rests money, power, or prestige, there are a few kernels of truth hidden behind a lot of smoke and mirrors. As I've gained more experience with such report writing over my career I've come to recognize that in writing such reports the smoke and mirrors insidiously over time slip into the minds of those who read and write such reports as truth, no matter how far from truth the report was originally.

Since most of the writing is falling to one or two people with reviews and edits by others we needed a way to label the information for veracity so we don't come to believe our own, uh, "creative interpretation" of our program. So I developed the series of "veracity levels" below modeled after the government's much-mocked terror alert levels.

March 30, 2009

The "Mathematics Problem"

Our journal club for this semester is looking at the "mathematics problem" in engineering education. At least this is what we've been calling it, but this may be due to our own ability to define what "mathematics problem" really means. The idea arose from listening to faculty complain that students don't seem to know math, or at least seem unable to do the mathematics asked of them in engineering classes. Over here in engineering we tend to blame either the math faculty or--even more easily--the students' high school preparation. But this viewpoint has always seemed a little simplistic to me; i.e. it is somebody else's fault.

In looking at this issue, there is a surprising dearth of information on the connection between engineering and mathematics, considering how fundamental math is to engineering. Wendy, a doctoral candidate in the journal club, found a paper in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (vol 54, p, 197, 2008) that looks at whether what students learn in mathematics courses transfers to chemistry courses.

This study devised two tests, one giving an algebra problem phrased in the context of chemistry and the same problem with all the chemistry content removed and written as a math problem. While the paper had it's weaknesses, the experiment was simple and the results were interesting:

  • Students were able to transfer algebra procedural skills to chemistry problems. The authos reported they were surprised by the proficiency with which students did this.

  • Some students' inability to transfer seemed to be more a result of inadequate understanding of mathematics rather than failures to transfer results to the context of chemistry.

  • In contrast to their facility with algebra procedures, students seemed unable to draw graphs or use graphical information to solve problems. Students actual scores on this aspect of the test were lower and they showed significantly less confidence in their abilities.

  • Finally the paper concludes, perhaps tenuously, that students have trouble transferring between graphical and algebraic thinking. In other words they can't use information from graphs to supplement what they learn from algebra or vice versa.
It should be noted that this study was performed in South Africa so the preparation of students there may be different than our own students here at OSU.

Two of these results support things I have repeatedly observed in my own classes of engineering seniors. First students aren't as comfortable using graphs as they should be at this point in their degree, and they certainly are not good at creating graphs. Second, the last of these conclusions is perhaps the most interesting to me from an educational research perspective. This paper hints at the fact that students seem to have a rote procedure for getting correct answers without being able to draw from multiple approaches. All of us that teach engineering education have certainly seen this in our classes. A common complaint is that many students don't think about procedures before they apply them.

I would argue that a sound conceptual understanding is vital to developing such metacognition. And now I've identified a gap in my own understanding of education. What are the best and most effective techniques for teaching conceptual understanding? Anybody out there have any good reference on this?

March 14, 2009

"...we cannot remain who we are"

The title of this post is taken from a short editorial in the Christian Science Monitor (linked in the title) from the president of Ohio State University, Gordon Gee. In the editorial he speaks about the need to use these days of financial uncertainty to fundamentally reform higher education. He posits that in a very global world the structure of higher education is too restrictive to really let us prepare graduates for the very (strange and wonderful) | (dangerous and terrifying) world in which we find ourselves.

While not deep in the sense of referencing research or statistics on education, the editorial did home in on something I personally have come to believe over the last few years- the university's problems are more structural than pedagogical. In the way the editorial was phrased, President Gee sees that a narrow focus on disciplinary knowledge can't prepare students for working in the world. Students collaborate naturally; course structures which inhibit sharing knowledge and experience no longer mimic life. In this he is right but I don't think he goes far enough...

Our focus at universities has historically been to address the need for students to master some part of the shared knowledge of the human race. Knowledge must be personal to be useful, so we see our goal as transmitting through the mouths of faculty what is known about a discipline to our students, who we hopefully develop enough of a relationship with to make learning somewhat personal. There is really nothing wrong with this approach, a lot of research supports the fact that experts have a lot of relevant knowledge in their heads where it can be accessed easily and quickly when they are confronted with a problem. And passing this on to non-experts is a good thing. The problem comes from how we transmit this knowledge and, perhaps more subtly, the need for us to grade. To assign "meaningful" grades we believe we need to give rigorous tests and homework assignments. However the very rigor of the grading schemes we use are, I think, their downfall. The knowledge I personally have found most useful in my career is the knowing of ways of doing things. Such knowing is general, flexible, adaptable, and very very hard to teach. Such tacit knowledge is difficult to measure using an exam; I still can't do this well despite years of tinkering with exams.

And this is the message I took from President Gee's article. At universities we trade effort for grades with the hope that learning occurs somehow in the effort. But the efforts needed to develop effective and learned citizens for today's society don't mesh well with what schools have historically done. We can't remain who we are if we are to claim that the education we offer is worth the price we now charge.

February 23, 2009

Hey, where's all the geek women at?

The reading assignment for this week's journal club was the chapter in Talking About Leaving that discussed gender issues in engineering education. My first impression on this chapter was that I don't live in the same world as my female students. This chapter makes the very powerful point that the culture of engineering is overwhelming and that members of that culture (i.e. men) simply don't understand the issues that women in our discipline face. On one level I knew this, but this chapter really made me internalize what this means and internalize my own helplessness by simply being who I am.

At one level this is is quite depressing. I've spent a lot of time mentoring women in research, developed programs, and thought I knew what I was doing. After reading this chapter I realize much of what I had thought was helping might not have been.

This chapter brought up a debate that I have been having in my own head for quite some time. We all characterize the discipline of engineering in our own heads. Hopefully these mental images (schema) match with the actual practice of engineering. So here is the conundrum: how do you satisfy both the rigor of professional practice AND the need to develop students so their own self-image doesn't crash head on with the the professional image they need to adopt to succeed in the discipline.

So how does this chapter and what I've learned about the difficulties women in STEM disciplines face impact my practice of teaching? Honestly I don't know... I feel very torn as a man to try to bridge to women who are in science. I feel that since I can't effectively step outside my own culture (i.e. the predominately male engineering culture that is the problem) the odds of making a mis-step are quite high. In other words I can cause more harm than good through my own fumblings outside my culture. About the only thing I might do to improve my teaching is to team with a woman in teaching classes in which retention is an issue.

February 9, 2009

Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline!

This post is about our on-going journal club over "the math problem", particularly chapters 3 and 4 of the book Talking About Leaving. This book should be read by anyone who teaches engineering- preferably early in their career.

There is a lot of good stuff in these chapters that makes a powerful case we are doing our students a great disservice by trying to do our profession a great service. I remember that the first time I read this book I got emotional and upset when I hit chapter 3; and getting emotional over most scientific publications is hard! I've always let my heart run away from my head when I see what I perceive to be injustice, and chapter 3 really paints a picture of the injustice we do our students. Why injustice?

  • We sucker students into joining STEM disciplines without doing a good job of explaining what exactly you can expect your career and life options to be.
  • We place greater emphasis on the disciplinary knowledge than the people who make up the discipline. And my alignment has always been chaotic...
  • The primary reasons that students leave STEM disciplines are due to things the faculty can easily change but don't.
  • Grades seem to be highly unrelated to what people learn.
  • Faculty use pedagogical approaches that don't emphasize conceptual understanding with dire consequences for students' long term understanding.

Obviously the list could go on quite a bit longer, chapter 3 is rich in issues than need to be addressed in engineering education. There are really two issues that I feel strongly about in this chapter and want to go into a little more detailed reflection on: the negative impact of grades, and the difficulty of focusing on building conceptual understanding.

First conceptual understanding... How does one design a class to focus on conceptual understanding, what are the concepts that most faculty agree are absolutely critical for a discipline, and what is the correct balance between conceptual and procedural understanding? All these are hard questions and my own reading has not led me to any answers yet. I have always been fascinated with the idea of taking a year off and laying out a conceptual foundation for my discipline. Though I've toyed with this idea I've never put any real effort into pursuing it. One of the first things I would look for is a conceptual taxonomy to rate and value different concepts. Also a conceptual hierarchy if one exists would be valuable in designing a class. Looking into conceptual taxonomies and hierarchies is a possible direction to pursue in later meetings of the journal club.

The balance between procedural and conceptual is perhaps an easier question but might be framed as a "chicken and egg" problem. Does one design lab experiments that illustrate application of concepts, or do you investigate and master concepts as they arise in doing actual engineering work? Again, I don't know the answer.

Grades. Blecch. Do grades serve any positive purpose whatsoever? Grades motivate certain students, but I would argue in the wrong way. Grades are highly uncorrelated to actual knowledge. Grades are a pain in the ass for faculty to assign; there isn't much more boring than the task of grading. Grades give students false impressions of their own level of knowledge. Grades--due to their inherent binary nature--cause moral quandries for faculty who have to balance the harm caused by failing a student with the long term problems that may arise by passing that student.

Hell, it is obviously time to get rid of grades and go with a more sensible system. I think I really need to write the gaming proposal that the imp of the perverse has been whispering in my ear for the last year...

January 24, 2009

Engineering Education Journal Club: Talking About Leaving ch. 1-2

We've started a journal club for graduate students and faculty across the disciplines of math, engineering, and education. As part of this we're all blogging about the papers we read in order to compare notes on our perceptions of the literature. So if you aren't interested in this I'd suggest you skip this rather lenghthy post.

The purpose of the journal club is to learn about the "mathematics problem"... This is the perception that students who take upper division courses don't have the necessary math skills to do the work expected by problem. The words "mathematics problem" is in quotes because the perception of the problem is an anecdote from faculty, and the plural of anecdote isn't anecdata.

The first few meeting of our journal club are focusing on the book Talking About Leaving- why undergraduates leave the sciences. I read this excellent book some time ago, and am re-reading it for the journal club. The first thing that struck me was how carefully this research was done and how it was led by what students had to say about their experiences in STEM programs. It seems to me to be very foolish not to consider what this book, and the students quoted in it, has to say about higher education. This is particularly true since one of the most interesting things about TAL is that all their ethnographic data came from those with math SAT scores of 650 or higher (26 ACT or 86th percentile). This biases the data considerably for us at OSU , but I think it is good that it isn't possible simply to dismiss the results as arising from "inferior" students. As a data point in ECE our mean ACT score is about 27 with 25%-75% range of 25-31.

One of the first things that struck me as I was reading chapters one and two was the misperceptions that most of us in higher education have about our own students. For example TAL discusses the distinction between faculty perceptions of what they teach and student perceptions of what they have to learn. Faculty believe a certain percentage of students "can't get it" because the material is hard while students believe that with sufficient effort they should all be able to get it. What would a class look like that was designed to have all students earn an "A"?

Another point that struck me, given an official OSU e-mail I received last week saying all OSU TA's must take an English proficiency exam is the relative lack of importance being a good English speaker had compared to other factors. The English issue was even specifically identified as a misconception.

Another point from TAL that resonated with me was that students who switch from a major and those who stay are very similar in academic ability. It is the fact that we can't seem to maintain their interest in STEM that results in attrition. The comments by students about the lack of intellectual stimulation, the boredom, really resonated with me. I found science and engineering boring when I was an undergraduate too and, looking back, am not really sure why I stayed with it. I guess I read too many Heinlein books as a kid... So one question that comes to mind at this point is what stimulates students' interest in STEM in the first place? What can we change to maintain their interest? What are their expectations?

TAL (p. 35) also discusses that conceptual difficulties can lead to a downward spiral which eventually results in students leaving STEM majors. This seems to be a really critical issue to me, especially since it affects engineers more than other STEM majors. I see it as critical because my own experience teaching primarily upper-division undergraduates reinforces a belief that most students don't have a sound conceptual foundation. However one question I'm left with is what exactly is meant by the phrase "conceptual difficulties"? I hope this is better defined later on or we further explore this issue as our journal club progresses.

One of the other issues brought up in TAL that reinforces my own beliefs is the importance of intrinsic motivation in staying in STEM disciplines and how the experiences of the first two years can reinforce or destroy intrinsic motivation. There is an in-depth analysis of how various motivations--both intrinsic and extrinsic--affect whether students persist in STEM or not. From what I can tell it comes down at a basic level to college having meaning. I think Victor Frankl covers it best in Man's Search for Meaning. So an open question is again what do students find meaningful? How do you identify students who are intrinsically motivated to study engineering?

Near the end of the second chapter of TAL Seymour and Hewitt look at the impact of the lack of high school preparation and how shocked many students were at their lack of preparation. There seems to be a little bit of a disconnect here in the book. Is it a lack of preparation in high school or are the expectations in college simply too high? Is there really such a communication problem in expectations?

Another interesting note is the fact that many students have horrible study habits they learned in high school. I definitely include myself in this category. I can hardly even remember doing homework in high school! A very interesting insight is stated as " of the first group of students to be lost are those who have internalized the attitudes of teachers, parents, and peers who confuse talent with achievement." The whole discussion here really reinforces the belief I have that grades are harmful to students and we need to replace them with a more sensible solution. From TAL it is clear a sizable fraction (perhaps as large as 40%) take grades as personal criticism- either positive or negative.

So what do I draw from all of this? What impression am I left with? It seems clear that attrition isn't highly correlated with ability. Those who are more self-aware may be at greater risk for leaving engineering. We do a miserable job of explaining what engineers really do and what you can do with an engineering degree. I am not sure we really even know. It is also clear that while being able to do mathematics is necessary to succeed in engineering, self-perceptions of math ability for incoming freshmen are worthless. Also being competent in mathematics doesn't seem to be a great predictor of staying in engineering. The emphasis TAL places on conceptual understanding makes me believe that a course focusing on providing the conceptual foundation of how math in used in engineering with many hands-on projects would be a viable approach; particularly if study skills were also taught.

January 23, 2009

Requiem for a black leather jockstrap and a whip...

I returned from an interview for a new faculty position at a teaching university to find a message in my in-box that a former professor of mine, Bill Wilson, had passed away. "Dr. Bill" taught electrical engineering at Rice University, my alma mater. Many people have influenced my career, but few had a more lasting positive influence than Dr. Bill. So instead of spending Friday night being entertained it seems fitting to remember how life-changing and long-lasting even the smallest events can be.

Rice is a selective, private, research university with a strong undergraduate tradition. I went to Rice from the small town atmosphere of the Panama Canal Zone. To a shy, protected geek Rice was dynamic, exciting, and in the early 1980's very anarchistic. Crazy parties, new people, its own private vocabulary, girls- Rice rolled students under, submerged their identity in its own, and created a strong need to belong. And it is a good thing they did since like many new students I was in over my head academically. The work was intense and never ending, the pressure unrelenting, the fear of failure ever-present. I suffered through the academics to maintain the lifestyle. Always at the back of my mind there was a little voice telling me I wasn't good enough, I wasn't cut out to be an engineer, "this isn't what you were meant to do with your life". And in the long nights of homework and rare moments of quiet reflection I knew I was lonelier than I had ever been before. But weekends of booze and barely-controlled social chaos kept the voice and loneliness at bay most of the time.

The biggest party of the fall semester was Weiss College's Night of Decadence (NoD links here and here); the party is, um, somewhat unrestrained. My first encounter with Dr. Bill, a faculty associate at Weiss, was at NoD in my freshman year. I ran into him in the line for 40 proof punch served from a twenty foot long paper mache penis that would have made a Titan feel inadequate. Dr. Bill had a drink in one hand, a whip in the other, and he was completely unclothed except for a metal studded black leather jockstrap which did little to hide his skinny, white 40-year-old ass. I simply did not believe that this was the first tenured electrical engineering professor I'd met at Rice despite assurances from my friends that he did in fact teach EE classes. Though I didn't talk to Dr. Bill again for nearly two years, this first meeting made a big impression on me.

After the initial novelty, life at Rice settled into a grinding routine. The loneliness increased along with the work. The voice also became more insistent as my enjoyment of schoolwork waned. I reached the nadir at the end of my sophomore year when the loneliness, work, and lack of meaning of constant homework made me give serious thought to switching majors or dropping out. I hated what I was doing and had no idea from my classes what it was engineers even did. But always there was an image of a middle aged, balding man in a black leather jockstrap and a whip enjoying the hell out himself in a crowd of students half his age. And I'd think to myself "Look at Dr. Bill, being an engineer can't be that uncool. Maybe people do emerge from this with their soul intact. If I just get through the next week.."

Dr. Bill's electromagnetics class in my junior year was the first engineering class I had at Rice where I had a sense that I "got it". He explained things simply and intuitively. So I specialized in electromagnetics, optics, and solid state--arguably the least intuitive sub-discipline of EE--to take more of his classes. I still didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated so went to graduate school both due to Dr. Bill's encouragement and my own hazy vision of becoming a faculty member in order to lead a life like his. Being a professor like Dr. Bill seemed nearly ideal career choice to a lost, 21-year-old displaced beach bum. He was a kind and sane voice during my first traumatic years as a graduate student. Over time my life was influenced even more strongly by others, and eventually I found my own direction and pursued my own goals. But I never fail to smile when I remembered my electromagnetic fields professor in a black leather jockstrap and a whip. Any sanity, commonsense, and humanity that I've managed to retain during my academic research career so far I owe, in part, to the mental image of Dr. Bill and his metal-studded black leather jockstrap.

So on this Friday night I raise a pint of beer in your memory Dr. Bill, you will be sorely missed. I resolve never again to try to hard to maintain what little dignity I have in front of my students, to take myself or what I teach too seriously, or be too busy to take the time to explain engineering to the lost souls. Reflecting back I see that the smallest thing we do can resonate far beyond our own life but only if done with humor, grace, and a keen sense of our own folly. Although it is hard to say good bye, I know you had fun.

January 16, 2009

Deans and Erections

I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone during the time Omar Torrijos was "El Hombre" in Panama and during Manuel Noriega's early years. One of the jokes at the time of Torrijo's death was about a giant skyscraper built built in Panama city right on the Avenida Balboa; reputedly to launder drug money. With typical Panamanian humor it was nicknamed "Torrijos' Last Erection". At the time I left Panama the edifice stood mainly empty, a tribute to building for buildings' sake.

About a month ago both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed summarize a report by the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs. You can also download the actual report in PDF Format. I actually read most of this report and found it supported a trend I've observed locally at my institution- vice presidents, athletic directors, and deans have been dipping from the till to finance their own grand dreams of what a university should be.

Lets look at a few of the more enlightening findings of the Delta report:
  • The report points out that "How colleges actually spend their money is barely understood by the general public and even many policy makers." I can speak to this firsthand- I have no idea where money goes or comes from, only there seems to be a lot of it floating around.
  • The overall verdict of the report is that while costs are increasing dramatically very little of the money students at public institutions are paying is going to their education! "In all institutional groupings — public and private — tuition prices increased faster than education and general spending per student. This suggests that both public and private institutions are becoming more dependent on tuition as a source of general revenue — not just to pay for education and related expenses, but as a general subsidy for all functions, including research and service."
  • Colleges play funny games with how they describe tuition. For example the "sticker price" of tuition is lower than gross tuition revenues. In other words colleges raise mandatory fees faster than tuition. According to the report "Institutions are also turning to user fees to fund many functions (e.g., technology fees), which have become a significant source of revenue." Again I can see this at my institution. Surprisingly students seem to simply accept these increases lying down.
  • The increased tuition is going to pay for costs other than education. "In public research universities, about 92 percent of the increase in student tuitions since 2002 can be attributed to shifts in revenue, while 8 percent went to actual increases in spending." Put into actual numbers the in-state average tuition for full-time undergraduates increased 29.8% from 2002-2006 while education and general spending per FTE student only increased 2.5%.

The reason universities are jacking up tuition to fund non-education activities is that their traditional sources of funding are drying up like a slug in a salt mine. On my campus it appears to a casual observer that all the extra tuition money is likely going into a building spree. In the ten years I've been a faculty member our engineering college has built or has under construction three new buildings- two are giant research buildings of over 100,000 square feet. Other powers-that-be within the institution have also indulged- we have a new stadium thanks to Boone Pickens, several new research building, an off-campus technology park, and a multi-modal transportation facility (this is a fancy name for parking garage and bus stop). I am an engineer, not an economist, but it seems obvious that even if the building are funded completely through donations the energy to run these buildings costs money as does the staff to populate, clean, and maintain them. And at least some of the money came from bond issues, and those need to be repaid, draining more money from operating expenses.

When I was interviewing for faculty positions I was very impressed by the lab space my university had just built, but as I've grown more experienced I begin to question how much value infrastructure has without the people and culture to sustain it. The real problems I have had in doing research are always people problems, not building or equipment problems. My guess is that the great institutions are great because of their culture, not their buildings. Didn't Fermi make the first nuclear reactor under the football stadium stairs in Chicago? But it is easy to put up buildings compared to changing a culture; especially for engineers. Lets hope we can learn to address the people and cultural problems with the zeal we have for building. Time is running out.

January 14, 2009

The Beginning of the Semester Blues

I had hoped over the break to change myself and my time management skills enough that I didn't get rolled under by the start of the semester. But again I find myself overwhelmed with minutiae, nibbled to death by mice. I remember reading in the excellent book Tomorrow's Professor that all faculty feel these time pressures and have to come up with various tricks of time triage to survive academia.

It is time we rose up against the time tyranny of the academic calendar. So for this post I am attaching a letter to the editor I wrote for the student paper at my school, Oklahoma State University (OSU) last year, in hopes it can start a national movement...

Another Modest Proposal

In 1729 Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal satirically suggested the Irish eat their children to help alleviate poverty. Swift’s commentary is applicable to OSU nearly three centuries later; more and more our “children” are consuming us both body and soul. The children referred to are meetings.

From my perspective as an OSU faculty member there have been many changes to our campus—both positive and negative—over the past five years. The increasing centralization of administration, creation of campus-wide incentives and institutes, and a focus on excellence in research and teaching are changing the campus environment. As with any change there are both positive and negative impacts on organizations and individuals; this is expected. One offspring of this change, however, is the seemingly uncontrolled growth of meetings. Meetings are the unwanted children of change that consume the most valued of faculty resources- time. Specifically, the long periods of uninterrupted time needed to reflect, conduct research, or engage in other creative activities that are the engine that ultimately drives “greatness” or “excellence” for a university.

The analogy between meetings and children is apt. Both seem like a good idea at the time, start small, and tend to grow to demand an inordinate amount of time and resources. While both children and meetings can be highly rewarding at times they are mainly just unrewarded work. In the institutional quest for greatness it is past time for OSU to practice “safe sex”. While from a faculty perspective an abstinence-based policy would be ideal, it would probably have a similar track record to abstinence-based efforts in other domains. Rather some form of birth control is needed to limit the uncontrolled growth of meetings.

What I propose is that OSU adopt an official policy of holding meetings only on Monday and Friday. Institute a complete and total ban on holding a formal meeting in the period from Tuesday through Thursday. Monday allows critical issues to be addressed at the start of a week while Friday is a good day to review ongoing projects. Meeting only at the start and end of a week gives faculty three uninterrupted days to focus on scholarship and teaching. There are many possible criticisms of this modest proposal. To the argument that two days are simply not enough time in which to schedule vital meetings note that: 1) these two days are 40% of the entire week, and 2) it will be much easier to schedule meetings if faculty and staff know they will occur only on Monday or Friday. Overall any disadvantages of a three day meeting ban are outweighed by the austere simplicity of this approach.
Alan Cheville

January 5, 2009

Lessons from Tinkerbell

My four year old daughter has fallen in love with Tinkerbell, and of all the heavily marketed mythical critters designed for the entertainment of children Tink is not a bad choice. It could have been Elmo or (God forbid) Barney. Yesterday we rented the new, direct to DVD Tinkerbell movie; we watched it this morning and it was surprisingly good. But what you should ask does Tinkerbell have to do with engineering education?

To provide a little background, Disney is currently marketing fairies of all types to the demographic represented by my daughter. Tinkerbell is one of the marketing tools which also include Pixie Hollow, a quasi-MMORPG for pre-teens. As part of this effort Tinkerbell is getting a new history, friends, and career far beyond that laid out by J. M. Barrie in Peter Pan.

In the movie Tinkerbell, we learn that Tinkerbell's name isn't really Tinkerbell at all, but Bell. Each fairy has a naturally gifted talent--working with animals, bringing the winds, etc.--and Bell discovers her talent is being a Tinker. Bell the Tinker...Tinkerbell. In the movie Tinkers are the engineers of the fairy world, working behind the scenes to enable other fairies to carry out their work of keeping Nature running smoothly. During the movie Tinkerbell rebels against being a Tinker, creates havoc in the land of fairies, saves the day through her engineering talent, and finally accepts who and what she is.

Recommendation: Two slide rules up!

While I'm not one to cheer on blatant marketing to a pre-teen demographic by a mega-corporation such as Disney, Tinkerbell is a wonderful metaphor for explaining the value of engineering (tinkering) to young people. Most of the textbooks for pre-engineering and introductory engineering courses I've read attempt to explain why engineers are important. On the excitement scale these attempts fall somewhere between "waiting for a haircut" and "grab on the way to a long stop in a public restroom". While the stories they tell are technically accurate they lack the warmth, humor, and plain joie de vivre that comes through in Tinkerbell. How often in engineering do we cling tightly to accuracy at the expense of passion? Sure it is necessary to be dispassionate at times, to let the numbers speak, to accept the fact that dreams simply can't be built. But how often do we let the need for dispassion override the power and dignity of the stories we could tell?

In the stage version of Peter Pan Tinkerbell finds doubt fatal. In her movie Tinkerbell struggles with but survives her self-doubt. Like Tinkerbell in the movie our students need to discover for themselves the value of engineering, of enabling the great work of this age. Without stories, without tales of heroes, without a guiding mythology it is hard for many students to discover passion in a dispassionate discipline. As an undergraduate I often doubted that I would emerge from an engineering program with the brighter parts of my soul intact. Like Tinkerbell many young engineers find doubt fatal.

Our discipline has worthwhile stories to tell. We as educators need to recognize that even very young listeners are able to distinguish stories from reality and to do a better job of telling the stories what engineering means as well as the movie Tinkerbell does.