Mobile day 4: Uni Basel

We took the train to Basel to visit uni Basel and learn about their education systems with Prof. Dr. Antonio Loprieno.

Pretty sure this is where we spent most of the day. But it is possible this is just a transom building I thought looked cool.

We were in lecture room for too long without enough sleep. Caffeine was key to survival.

Lopreino’s thoughts on where Swiss institutions sit on a psuedo Pasteur’s quadrant.

Ky and I had the honeymoon suite in our hotel! Fancy!

Spalantor/Gate of Spalen in Basel at night. This was about a 3 min walk from our hotel.

Mobile 3: Zurich Universities

I’m trying to catch up on events so here come some photos and descriptions of the days.

Arrival at University of Zurich.

The room we spent the morning in. Chatting about UZH and the Swiss higher education system.

The view from ETH Zurich’s cafeteria.

That wall is older than probably anything you will ever see. They believe it was from roughly the 1300s.

Dinner started with french onion soup. Absolutely delicious!

Swiss veal specialty. Absolutely amazing.

I ate the dessert before taking a picture though…

Mobile Post 2: First Official Day Complete

The first official day of the trip is complete. Technically the trip started at 3pm Sunday with a briefing on University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and University of Basel. This was followed by a trip to mountain top raclette and fondue. And that was basically the official program of the day. We did a little more though…

First things first, we discovered that most of Zurich is shutdown on Sunday, especially in the morning. None of the grocery stores were open and neither were most restaurants. After failing to get breakfast stuff at the local coop (pronounced co-op apparently), Deb and I dropped our stuff at Hotel St. Josef and went to find some others.

We succeeded in getting Akshay and Patrick for breakfast, and were then joined by Erin, Mike, and Sarah.

This was followed by a checking into the hotel with everyone and a hunt for chocolate. Our original chocolate shop was closed because it was Sunday, but fortunately there was a Bachmann/Lindt across the street. I forgot to take photos here because I was too busy drooling, but the back was just a waterfall of chocolate.

Next we wandered towards the lake and engaged in shenanigans, such as climbing artwork:

(I was too short but Mike managed to get on top)

Bothering the metallic wildlife:

And hoping on a boat:

They had a ton of little shoreline parks which was super cool.

And it was nice to see the town without wandering too much.Then we went back to the hotel and briefed each other on University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and University of Basel.

These are our first three universities and are the first two are basically the MIT and Harvard of Europe. The are both super well ranked works wide (not that rankings really mean much).

Then after that we went to dinner and I had fondue,


And flan

for the first time in my life. It was awesome and I need more…Then we went home and most people went to bed.

For of us went to a local pub to chit chat though, and boy was that fun. There were a bunch of Finnish people watching the world championships of home between Finland and Canada and I believe Finland won. As you can imagine shit got crazy. They started throwing glasses into the air to shatter on the cobblestone and shouting and what have you. This prompted the pub owner to come out. He got appropriately angry and tried to kick them out of the street but that was a struggle and we thought he was about to kill one guy. We quickly finished our drinks and left. Then it was bed time.

Please let me know if you have questions.

The next post will likely be about University of Zurich and ETH (as a spoiler alert).

Mobile Post: Wandering in the Rain with new friends

So here goes for my first mobile post, so sorry for the typos.

Today Deb and I joined up with Diana, Dan, and Mike for breakfast. It was expensive, but damn I love European coffee.

As we were walking out we ran into Ky, Sara, and Erin (I’ll url link these people eventually…) walking too their hostel. Then we wandered around the city getting lost for a bit. Stopped for some beers at a restaurant!

And then Dean DePauw walks up and joins us (for a cappuccino). After we got to know each other a little we got some Swiss chocolate and wandered to the lake.

Now we are waiting for dinner and such! So far a tremendous say!

Observations of the day:

  • Zurich has good beer

  • Zurich has an absurd number of swans

  • Swiss chocolate is wonderful

  • I love being surrounded by mountains

  • The Swiss are friendlier than the Russians

  • Zurich has great public transportation

Half way to Zurich (~24 hours in)

So, I’m not even in Zurich yet and I already have fun stories to blog about! Let me catch you up on what my day has been like thus far:

Wake up at 5am to pack the car, eat breakfast, etc. A little after 7am, Deb and I run to the store to grab earplugs for sleeping, and to top off the gas tank. From there, we pick up another Global Perspectives Program (GPP) participant, Iris.  Then it is off to  Dulles Airport, an unexciting 4-hour drive from Blacksburg.

The car ride goes fine, as traffic was relatively kind. Deb and I interrogate Iris about cultural differences between Ghana (her home country) and the US. Deb and I are flabbergasted by her 25 siblings back home and her perspective that having noisy neighbors are nice because they remind you that you are not alone.

We arrive at Dulles, shuttle and check in with a little time to spare. Then we meet up with Dan, the fourth GPP person on our flight. Iris realizes that Dan, Deb, and I all have an early Zurich flight so she tries to moves hers up. The flight staff says they’ll put her on standby when we get to Moscow for our connection. We all have to weigh our bags and prove they are carry-on sized. Deb and I are totally a little over the weight limit with our bags, but the flight attendant lets us get away anyway (much to dismay of his boss who is trying to eliminate cabin luggage). Everyone gets on the plane fine, but Deb and I are stuck in the middlest of middle seats between two grumpy looking russians that appear to be aisle-seat lovers.

We pull away from the gate, start to taxi a tad late, and then pull over and sit on the tarmac for not one, not two, but THREE lovely hours. We suspect that this is because of the tornado warning that has been issued for the DC area, but they claim it is a technical issue with the plane and ignore the tornado warning. Our flight was meant to take of at 3:00 pm…it now takes off at 6:00 pm. We had a 2 hour layover in Moscow. Can you see where this is going?

Deb and I slowly loose our minds as the 9.5 hour flight continues. Our Russian friends have zero interest in stretcching thier legs or using the restroom during the 12 hours we are the plane. We try to be the polite passengers as our legs cramp and the people in front of us slam their seats all the way back. We watch a movie and try to relax until Deb’s TV breaks and we decide to try a nap. The 3 babies on board have other ideas. The one a row back is the worst culprit. She cries about every 15 minutes for 15 minutes at a time, THE ENTIRE 12 HOURS! I’m ready to cry along with her because she’s too loud and close for my earplugs to help.

When we finally got to Moscow, we sprinted to the nearest departures board and our flight is missing in action, it probably left 40 minutes prior. Dan, Deb, and I all line up to swap our tickets for a new flight, and end up on Iris’s original flight…which doesn’t leave for another 7 hours or so. Fortunately, I have plenty of down time to blog…but all we want to do is sleep. So here I am, 4 hours of driving, 3 hours of waiting on the tarmac, and 9.5 hours of flying later, waiting in Moscow for a way out.

Ya gotta love flying! I’m excited for the next leg of the journey, but I’m also REALLY tempted to pay for one of the nap pods…

Edit: As a fun fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many blonds in one pace as I’ve seen at the Moscow SVO airport.


On the Eve of Departure

The GPP trip is only a few weeks away and I am so ready to leave! The previous 3 weeks have been chaotic and crazy as the semester wraps up, so I am surprisingly ready to sit on a plane for 8+hours with no ability to do work. Then, of course, Switzerland has to great.

I’m excited to see what other countries are like and how they describe their own systems. I would like to know how they feel about U.S. applications for faculty and such. What are their requirements and how do people address strange things like the inability to get Swiss citizenship. We’ve discussed a lot of these already before leaving, but hearing it from the horse’s mouth is a little different. I’m curious as to how they perceive our funding strategy compared to ours. How stressed out do these professors feel when applying for grants and other funding?

Before writing this, I was enjoying the Chemical Engineering graduate coffee hour with the head of the department, Dr. Cox, and he said some enlightening things about the funding for Virginia Tech and about grants and such. He mentioned that Tech was accepting far more students than previously because Tech is trying to decrease reliance on state funding and rely on tuition dollars instead because a few years ago 40% of the state funding was cut. That just sounds horrific, and I wonder how susceptible other countries are to such budget cuts.  Switzerland sounds very supportive of its education system, but what if the politicians change their minds and remove support?

Again, I’m bouncing off the walls excited to be able to ask this question and others in just a few weeks. This past year has been a rollercoaster of emotions with regard to my thoughts on higher ed and a future career here, and this trip might solidify my resolve o become European faculty, or maybe I’ll abandon all hope of professorship. Either way, I’m excited to see what happens!

For now, I’ll shine my shoes, find a good pair of earplugs, and maybe purchase a book or two for my kindle.

Group Blog Post on Critical Pedagogy

What does Critical Pedagogy mean to you and your group?

For us, critical pedagogy encompasses a number of critical elements:

  • Ask questions and encourage students to question and reflect on everything.
  • Education is political and students must be aware of the vested interests and underlying assumptions in the information they are provided.
    • Democracy thrives in the illumination of learning, and withers without it.
  • Fostering a community of engaged learning in the classroom.
  • The passion that teachers and students both have for different subjects should be fostered and encouraged.
  • Encouraging childlike curiosity and unconstrained critical thinking.

This is contrasted from traditional approaches.

All too often we ignore the data we collect and continue full steam ahead because the data doesn’t support the people making money or the way things have “always been done”. We need to give children the freedom to be curious, not drown them in testing.

We need to remember that everyone in the classroom has a life outside of the classroom. This does not disappear when they walk into the room. If we want students to learn their best, we need to teach in ways that are relevant to their problems and their interests or the outside issued will overwhelm the class material.

The traditional pedagogy is like a banking system, which expects all students with different thoughts rooted in their various backgrounds to think in the same ways. On the other hand, critical pedagogy appreciates the diversity of learners and fosters their ideas with encouraging to think out of the box accepting the other’s opinions and come up with a genuine solution together.

How may you apply it to your specific fields and educational settings?


Chemical Engineering:

  • Emphasize the strategies to assess a problem, build a toolset of techniques and mathematics, and then apply them to a given situation. All too often students are taught formulas that apply to abstract situations and do not properly understand when they apply or when they do not. They can plug-and-chug their way through problems without understanding where the final equation came from. Teach students what went into each equation, conceptually, instead of just defining variables.

Political Science:

  • Particular segments of political science are already aware of the need for critical reflexivity in the discussion of different topics. Students should be made aware of different approaches to particular issues. In international relations, neither liberalism, realism, or constructivism are dominant and there are numerous scholars who promote their favorite rationales for their own reasons. The study of politics itself is often grounded in only occasionally questioned personal biases and beliefs. Students should be encouraged to express their own views and interests in their research classes. Different approaches to political issues should also be promoted through student-led research projects such as the State Department’s Diplomacy lab where students decide how best to solve or discuss issues facing the U.S. State Department around the world.
  • Should also continue to promote a sense of the reason why criticality and education matter. Going back to Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s The Politics and Constitution of Athens, and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws education and republican democracy are linked. It is important for democratic citizens to possess the ability to critically evaluate information beyond simply promoting rote memorization of facts but through really internalizing the need for self-critical reflection and development in students.

Hispanic Studies:

Critical pedagogy in the Hispanic studies classroom should encourage critical perspectives and understanding of language ideologies, culture and identities. This can be done by acknowledging the diversity in Hispanic cultures, disrupting stereotypes, and diversifying the representation in the material used in the classroom. With this, we can encourage students to step into perspectives that differ from theirs by showing how these language and cultural ideologies affect people from different socioeconomic, racial, and religious backgrounds.

Critical pedagogy in the Hispanic studies classroom should disrupt discrimination based on stereotypes, as well as the conflict and difficulties brought about when cultures and languages collide. Encouraging curiosity and questions in the classroom to create in students a spirit of understanding, compassion, connection, and critical thinking.

Lastly, critical pedagogy should create in students a desire to mediate for Spanish speakers in the country and also recognize underrepresented populations in the Spanish speaking world such as indigenous, afro-descendants, as well as religious minorities.

Industrial & Systems Engineering:

Based on my experience I found engineering education is dominated by the traditional lecture-based teaching and exams questions are presented as well-structured problems with given parameters that are stated, and students are asked for the correct solution. This type of education is characterized by what Freire called “banking education’ where the relationship between teacher and student is clearly hierarchical, where knowledge is transmitted through a top-down approach. Instead of banking education, critical pedagogy could enhance problem-posing education in engineering which would break the hierarchical relationship between students and teacher and develop critical consciousness and improve the learning process.

Engineering in General (Hani)

To be perfectly honest, a comprehensively-overhauled and critically informed engineering pedagogy would have almost nothing in common with current practices in the engineering department at R1 universities. Not only are engineering teaching practices at the department level still rooted in arcane conceptualizations of teaching like the banking model and myths of meritocracy and an abstraction-fixated curriculum; the very framing of “what an engineer does” conveyed thru the content is actively disempowering to the budding engineer. Not only are classes taught with the teacher as the sole authority; at no point is it ever included that an engineer is a human being who actually has a specific social location and lacks/has relevant information.

We engineers do not teach to solve problems any more than a calculator is able to “solve problems”, so when attempting to adopt a critical pedagogical approach, an engineering instructor rapidly encounters the staggering chasm between current practices and hypothetical someday. We can, of course, mimic the motions described in Friere and hooks’ works- let students choose their own projects, affirm the validity and importance of their unique experiences and knowledge, decenter our own choices as instructors to adopt a more collaborative course structure with our students, even encourage students questioning the posed problems. But a flipped classroom cultivating diligently unquestioning servants of existing hegemonies can hardly be described as serving the oppressed.

My attempt at a full-fledged implementation of a critical pedagogy in engineering would need to start with restructuring degrees around “what needs does the individual seek to address in their community?”, then go from there to having them address a succession of as many concrete, complete problems around that need as possible as situated design projects immersed in and in collaboration with their community. Course offerings under such a degree architecture could then make vastly more effective use of a critical pedagogy: with students routinely encountering the real-world intergroup power conflicts that seem to almost always underlie systemically unmet needs, instructors could genuinely engage with the realities of the classical content’s ideological background and its weaknesses while concurrently empowering students with the specific technical content they need to be immediately effective changemakers within and for their community. Without similar change to the underlying system of engineering departments, an individual instructor attempting substantial change toward practicing a critical pedagogy in their own classroom would find themselves spending half the semester attempting to unlearn in their students the trained helplessness & unhelpful misinformation that was taught in all the previous courses along the way.


Inclusion in the classroom

As a white male with tons of privilege, this topic has always been an interesting and necessary topic for discussion for me. I grew up in a very affluent area and went to a very well off public school with very little diversity. I was raised to respect everyone as an individual and to remember that everyone has their own stuff to deal with. As a result, I’ve always wanted to be inclusive and politically correct and what not. But it can be very difficult to educate yourself. The internet can take you down many dark alleys while speaking to others in person tends to just get uncomfortable.

I think the Heineman podcast does a good job of breaking down the need for discussion. It can be especially important in school because we need to learn to have tough discussions at some point. I think we need to learn how to avoid offending people while talking about sexism, racism, bigotry, and all our other problems. I think we need to learn how to tell superiors their behavior is inappropriate. I think we need to learn to ask for enlightenment.

But I also feel that much of our society emphasizes not talking about issues. School is a tremendous place to do this because we generally try to emphasize the idea that there is no such thing as a dumb question. The problem is that we need some techniques, some ice-breakers, to get into the topic and to keep people from shutting out the discussion. Does anyone know how to do this? I honestly don’t know how to break through someone’s conscious, and unconscious biases.  Plenty of people tune out anything that doesn’t match their biases, so we can’t really have a discussion with others until we break that barrier. What are your thoughts?

Take your nose out of the grade book and behold wonder!

In the video we saw during class, Dan Pink talks about higher rewards leading to worse performance on cognitive tasks. However, he doesn’t describe the experiment well enough to understand why/how higher rewards impact cognitive skills. His other video does a better job with the candle experiment. In this one, he describes that the higher reward narrows subject focus so much that they can’t think outside the box to solve the problem. This matches with the quote used by Alfie Kohn :

A student asked his Zen master how long it would take to reach enlightenment.  “Ten years,” the master said.  But, the student persisted, what if he studied very hard?  “Then 20 years,” the master responded.  Surprised, the student asked how long it would take if he worked very, very hard and became the most dedicated student in the Ashram.  “In that case, 30 years,” the master replied.  His explanation:  “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task.”

I didn’t register the impact of Pink’s work until I read Kohn’s. Then I got hit by memories of finals time with friends calculating what grade they needed to get grade X in each class. While I’d like to say I was above this practice, that I didn’t feel those needs because I would rather be studying instead, such words would be a lie. In the classes that I enjoyed, I don’t think I ever calculated a theoretical grade, but in the boring or disinteresting classes there was a lot of “I could probably accept a lower grade in exchange for my sanity…”. What’s worse about this is how focused people are on only grades.

Students want a degree to get a job, and think that grades will affect their job chances. The truth is that your professional network and your ability to interact with people will pull far, far more weight in the job market. However, students feel more compelled to study than to attend networking socials and conferences. I have a terribly hard time getting students to attend events for my club (when they’ve already told me they are interested) because they’re afraid to take time out away from the lab or studying.  I offered a free week in Detroit to eat food and network at the largest and most important conference in my field, no presentations required, and no one would take me up on the offer. That is insane to me. I basically had to force close friends to go because I had already booked housing with university funding. I’ll do the same thing next year too. Students are so focused on finishing degrees or getting good grades that they miss the opportunities that make life good. It’s a sickness at this point, and I blame this need to keep an eye on your grade/end goal. Finishing is important, but if you enjoy the journey you’re far more likely to make it out alive.

With this in mind, what are some opportunities you’ve missed because you were afraid of setting yourself back or getting a lower grade? What experiences have you enjoyed at some cost?


Edit: With the vast interest in this conference I’m “dragging” people to, I thought I’d give a little context. The conference is the annual conference for the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), know as ANTEC. Last year it was in Orlando, this year it’s in Detroit, and next year it is apparently in  San Antonio. My advisor is the club advisor so I kind of got guilted in signing up for a leadership position when my lab mates wanted to step down. Since starting I’ve started to love the opportunity and I want to give it a bigger presence around campus. VT has an amazing polymer/plastics program and that makes it a great place to use a club/organization like SPE to dispel the many misconceptions about plastics (yes they stick around forever, but they are so efficient to make it makes paper bags look like hummers – you win some, you lose some) and teach amazing things (like plastic eating fungi)! Anyhoo, to make an impact I applied to a bunch of funding opportunities through VT and SPE and got some. I’m also tabling for my department at their career fair/expo thing, so I got some support from the Macromolecules Innovation Institute to talk up VT to anyone considering grad school in the polymer field. So if you’ve got any vague connection to plastics you want to take advantage of, hit me up for next year’s conference (or come to the SPE meeting on March 1st).

Also, for anyone interested in a cheap local conference, in 2020, VT is hosting the National Graduate Research Polymers Conference (NGRPC2020) through ACS. It’s a great time to learn about how plastics affect you. And currently, we plan to offer VT students a discount…but that is still being worked on.

</shameless plug>

Mindlessly Mindful, a Tale of Excessive Curiosity

This week’s readings made me realize I should tell y’all something about myself. I’m annoyingly curious. I’m that person who hears the words “I don’t know” and is googling the answer before the sentence is even finished. I’m a strong believer that if we have roughly all of humanity’s knowledge in our pocket, we might as well use it. This curiosity has driven me to waste tons of extra time on various tasks because I want to know just a little bit more.

As I’ve gotten older, this has led to me getting antsy and annoyed at any class that tries to teach me something that I feel won’t lead to a lasting skill or understanding of some sort. From my experience, required classes rarely have more than a 5% application to my research/life, especially if formatted as an information dump. To me, such classes are a waste of my time.

As it turns out, I dislike these courses because they feel mindless to me. I sit in those classes and zone out because enough material is easy/old that it’s difficult to think critically about the information. It’s hard to just accept information as it’s piled on top of you at a rate that doesn’t allow in-depth question/answer sessions.

To combat such classes I’ve started adapting assignments such that they force me to learn something on my own. Instead of throwing data into excel and letting it make an ugly plot, I started taking the time to learn a coding language and analyze the raw data by myself. I ignored software options to calculate peaks and slopes, opting to program derivatives and other things instead. This technique took way more of my time, but it also taught me way more. I was deliberate about my learning and had to think about the content from a variety of angles before I could implement the necessary strategies.

This is to say that while I’m a strong proponent of teachers reworking classes to push students toward mindful learning, sometimes students have to learn to be mindful themselves. We have the ability to turn the tables and say hey, your way isn’t working, but this way worked really well for me.

Ideally, both teacher and student would work towards a mindful learning approach. However, I think this would take extra work for both parties. So my question is, how do we convince people to put in the extra effort? I had wanted to learn to program, so the effort was worth it to understand something I’d been putting off for years. Without that incentive, I think I would have just suffered through the class.