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.