I recently attended the Northeast Section ASEE conference in Boston, MA. While there were two full days of poster and oral presentations, there were a few that stood out as particularly profound to me. The following is a brief summary of the conference and these excellent presentations.
The conference theme was “Education in the Digital Age”. Many of the presentations addressed this theme. Some did so directly, through the introduction of new technologies and software. Others did so indirectly, by studying the behaviors of the students of the “digital age” and adapting teaching philosophies to better suit their radically different learning styles compared to students of the 20th century.
Keynote Address – Professor Woodie Flowers, MIT
Professor Flowers had some extremely interesting insights into the current state of engineering education. He presented the results of several studies that clearly show that in general, students are not being taught in college the things they are expected to know for their jobs post-graduation. One study surveyed a group of engineers who graduated 10-14 years ago. They were presented a list of 100 topics and asked to indicate whether they learned the topic in engineering school or on the job, if the topic is useful to them in their current role as a professional engineer, and if their employer expects them to be knowledgeable in the topic. The responses clearly indicated that almost all of the things they learned in engineering school were not used or expected to be known, and all of the things that are used and are expected to be known on the job were not taught to them in school. This seems like a very serious problem.
Professor Flowers also pointed out that society is expending significant effort in all the wrong places. He used a very interesting example – the recent film Avatar had a budget of $500M and over 1,000 technical experts staffed. After the initial hype, the long term contribution to society is essentially non-existent. On the other hand, a typical text book is the result of the work of 2-5 people and an extremely small budget. The text book, however, has an extreme impact on society, as it is used as part of the training of the engineers of the next half-century.
A main topic of the talk was the separation of “training” from “education.” He defines training as the mechanics of problem solving, learning terminology, etc. “Education” is the transfer of experience and insight from the instructor to the students. His idea is to “outsource the training to screens.” That is, the students should be responsible for learning the mechanics and the “dry” parts of course topics on their own. They can then spend the valuable in-class time in thoughtful discussion with the course professor. This outsourcing, of course, would need to be to more than simply a text book. This part of the plan calls for an extremely multidisciplinary team of educators. Not only “content experts” who currently write text books, but also graphic artists, linguists, education researchers, game designers (everyone who would be on the Avatar team) should work together to develop a highly interactive and exciting electronic training system that caters to all learning styles. The idea is to start working together. There are dozens of books which try to teach the same material that has been around for centuries. It is time that we work together to develop a single solution that is comprehensive and is more effective at educating our young engineers.
Professor Flowers also addressed the concern of how to challenge or change a system such as the current education system, which has such enormous momentum. His thought is to develop this new process in parallel, prove that it works, and then hope that it is slowly absorbed by the mainstream system. This seems like the only reasonable approach to me.
Learning an Integrated View of Engineering (LIVE)
The author has developed a web-based tool to formally connect topics throughout the ECE department at her university. The idea is that students enter “Course 1,” then leave “Course 1” and enter “Course 2.” If the instructors are excellent, they will make explicit the links between topics across course boundaries. If they are not, these links are not necessarily found by students on their own, and missing these links is a major loss. The tool is simply an interactive concept map that students can navigate around. The leaves of the concept tree are basic concepts (algorithm, signal, etc). These leaves feed up to slightly more complicated concepts, which eventually feed up into applications. Students can query things like “What can I do once I learn this?” and find some exciting answers, which will hopefully keep them motivated. Links to nodes at the same level can help students find parallels between concepts that aren’t necessarily sequential. These links can help them to look at topics from different angles, hopefully enhancing overall understanding.
The tool also overlays the institute curricula over the concept map. For example, one can go to the section of the map that has topics from ECE 101. I spoke to the author about sharing this tool. Since the concept map is essentially static, any institute could very easily overlay their own course numbers and concept organization onto the existing concept map. She is checking with her funding sources to see if sharing the system is possible, but if it is, I highly recommend RPI looks into adopting it.
Inverting the Lecture Paradigm
This was a recurring theme throughout several presentations. It seems to be now widely accepted that lecturing is no longer an effective way to communicate to today’s students. Hundreds of years ago, lectures developed because one person was the only source of the knowledge, and this one-to-many communication was a very good way to spread the information. Today, however, students have at their fingertips at home and literally everywhere they go (laptops, IPods, IPads, Kindle, etc.) the same information in the form of text books (printed and digital), recorded lectures, and other online tutorials and resources. We must recognize that it is not hard at all for students to obtain the information. What we must do now is teach them what to do with it and when to use it.
The current system is set up for students to hear the material in class in the form of a lecture, then go home and practice it in the form of homework problems. The proposal is to do exactly the reverse. Students should learn concepts and do problems before coming to class, then spend class time in discussion with the professor about when and where to use these new tools. You may remember an almost identical concept from the summary of the keynote address, where the “training” was to be separated from the “education”. That this concept has arisen several places independently is quite telling.
Perception is Important
Too often students do not give themselves enough credit. They will get to the end of a course and feel like they may not have learned very much. A study was conducted that used an end of course survey to collect data about how much students thought that they had learned. When goals were not clearly defined at the beginning (as they are not more often than not), students indicated that they thought they had not learned very much. In the same course taught by the same instructor, this time with clearly defined goals given at the beginning and throughout the course, students responses to how much they perceived that they had learned was markedly higher. Both sets of students actually learned the same materials! The point is that with some very trivial tweaks such as taking 10 seconds to define a goal, the students “feel better” about what they have done, and are hence less likely to feel as if they are wasting their time, and attrition rates should decrease.