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...