Balancing Power in the Engineering Classroom

Chapter 2 in Weimer dealt with balancing power between the students and instructor in the classroom.  The thought is that as the student’s ability to gain control over their education increases, their motivation, confidence, and ultimately their desire to learn will increase.  Weimer also brought up a critical issue facing many classrooms (my experience has been focused on the engineering classroom), where the professor overcompensates for their feeling of vulnerability by increasing their level of control in the classroom.  Taking a large portion of control limits the ability of the student to take some control over their own educational process.  Some professorial control is necessary.  However, there is much bullying done by the professor in order to assert too much control in the class.

The benefits of control by the professor

Engineering is built on a structured educational system that begins with the fundamentals, and then increases to the advanced topics that are built on the foundations of the fundamentals.  Example: Calculus 2 is required for Physics 1 which is required for dynamics (basic) which is required for structural dynamic (specific application), and by the time structural dynamics is reached the student must have completed a course on differential equations.  Each of the courses builds upon the previous so that a student taking a structural dynamics course should have a fundamental understanding of how to mathematically structure a solution based on past learning.  In this respect, the professor’s control in the course materials (particularly in the fundamentals courses) is vital.  The student must learn the fundamental concepts rigorously enough to understand the implications of models and assumptions.

The benefits of limited control by the professor

The advanced courses are designed to give the students an insight to practical applications of the engineering principals learned during their career.  One of the best questions asked (one that most professors hate in my experience) is, “when will I ever use this again?”  This question is feared because the professor does not want to tell the truth that modern computer applications will do most of the fundamental work for you.  (Side Note: many assumptions are built into modeling programs, and almost every application must be verified mathematically.  Thus, I believe you cannot ignore the fundamentals courses).  However, if the professor can relinquish some control over the course applications by allowing the student to explore their own unique solutions to problems, the students question could turn from the aforementioned to “what are some of the implications of this result”.

All too often the engineering coursework is designed such that students are forced to solve problems by hand that they would normally program into computers in their employment.  A problem that takes several hours by hand can be distilled into a handful of lines of code.  If professors embraced the use of this sort of technology, as opposed to holding on to a past defined by pencils on engineering paper, the experience of the learner would be more applicable and broader.

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