Monthly Archives: September 2015

My teaching self

What is my teaching voice?

Well, to be honest, I have no idea! I have never taught, I’ve never even been a TA. I’ve thought a lot about the characteristics and approaches I want to emanate in my teaching, and I have some tenuous ideas, but I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the feeling that I don’t have the slightest clue what I’m doing. I’m introverted and I’m not overly comfortable speaking in front of groups. It’s hard to align these characteristics with my ideas of an effective teacher.

Which is why I found Sarah Deel’s piece more than a little reassuring. Maybe I just need to figure out who I am and then just be that person… sounds reasonable, right? I really like how intentional Deel is about incorporating aspects of her personality into making sure she is an effective teacher. Her discussion of her own experience as a student helped me to understand that I think part of what I am struggling with is the fact that I’ve never had many instructors who are like myself. To start with the most obvious difference between myself and my instructors, as an undergraduate, I only had a single engineering course taught by a woman. Most of my professors were confident and loud, and frankly, far too often didn’t seem to care much about teaching. Maybe it’s starting to sound like a good thing that I can’t relate to these qualities. Hopefully I haven’t overgeneralized too much here. I had a few awesome teachers, but unfortunately more often than not, these negative characteristics seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.

As Deel suggests, there are many ways to be a good teacher and overlooked characteristics may actually be key aspects to learning to teach in our own voice.

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Problem Solving and Imagination in Class Projects

We’ve spent a lot of time in class so far this semester discussing the role of testing in education and alternatives for assessment of students learning. Overall, I’m in favor of the use of real-world projects as a way to demonstrate knowledge. However, one thing has been nagging at the back of my mind every time I have said or written anything in support of this viewpoint. That is the fact that every single class project in my undergraduate was a pretty miserable experience, and definitely not the kind of thing I would want to put my own students through.

There are several things that I think repeatedly went wrong in these projects that hindered my learning:

1. There was no room for creativity. Projects were grounded firmly in realism. I can think of multiple occasions when I was part of a group that tried to think outside the box and proposed something unique, just to be told by an instructor that, “That’ll never work in the real world” or “No one would ever be willing to pay for that.”

2. There are too many rules. It felt to me like some of my engineering projects were as much about the formatting of the final project report as they were about the actual problem solving.

3. Group work is hard. Honing interpersonal skills can be a huge challenge that often takes away from the learning and problem solving on a project. Of course being able to work in a group is a valuable skill so I think we need to give some thought as to how to most effectively balance group work with individual learning.

On the other hand, when I think back to my undergraduate education and identify the most engaging experiences that I learned the most from, two experiences come to mind. The first is my undergraduate research project and the second was an out-of-class project I participated in and even captained my senior year: concrete canoe (that’s exactly what it sounds like. You build a canoe out of concrete and race it across a lake and hope it doesn’t sink… and it’s awesome!).

1. Real-world relevance. These projects had real-world applications and I got to carry out a plan in an iterative manner rather than spending an entire semester committing a single idea to paper with no opportunity to test my ideas, as can be the case in class projects.

2. Autonomy. There’s space to think through problems and make mistakes and learn from them.

3. I had an advisor to offer technical support and feedback rather than a list of rules and guidelines.

I’m not exactly sure what a project that avoids these pitfalls and captures the positive aspects looks like, especially in Engineering, but I think it is something to work towards. I really like the games mentioned in Mark Carnes’ commentary piece Setting Students’ Minds on Fire and would love to incorporate a similar approach into my own teaching.

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Purposeful learning in STEM

In my personal experience, undergraduate engineering at the institution where I earned my Bachelor’s was presented to the students to fulfill one key purpose: money. On one of the first days of my undergraduate studies, my Intro to Engineering professor said to us: “There is only one reason to pursue a career in Engineering: money. If you’re here for any reason other than to put some porkchops in the freezer, then you’re lying to yourself.” He asked students who disagreed to tell him why they thought they were in engineering and several of us said things like “I want to help people, I want to make a difference,” but each supposedly naive response was met with laughter, and frankly, a little mockery. This experience was so bizarre and to this day, I am so puzzled about what has happened in this man’s career that makes him think it was appropriate or productive or accurate to tell young, eager engineering students this. Fortunately, he was the only person I encountered in my studies who made such proclamations with such careless abandon, but the idea that money was our key driver in studying engineering was constantly present.

I found this lurking idea to be extremely damaging. It’s a large part of the reason I considered dropping out of engineering on several occasions: I wasn’t convinced I was doing something meaningful with my studies. How am I supposed to stay motivated for 4+ years of education, not to mention the rest of my life, simply for a nice paycheck? Sure, that paycheck can be a great motivator, but can’t I do something meaningful too? I think this idea that money is king led to a really poor quality of engagement on the part of myself and my peers in many of my classes. Who cares if you understand or care about the material as long as you learn just enough to get that degree and pass those liscensure tests?

This need for purpose is really well illustrated in Dan Pink’s video RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Purpose is so important for meaningful learning and career satisfaction. He talks about how there are 3 key things that govern our motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. He talks about how it can be beneficial for companies to have some sort of “transcendent purpose” for a number of reasons: it makes coming to work more enjoyable, it can prevent ethical issues from occurring, encourage better service and product development and so on. This makes a lot of sense in the context of education as well and I think in particular is a key part of STEM education that is often lacking.

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Mindful Learning

After reading Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning, one point in particular really stood as as being fundamental to my educational experiences, especially in engineering courses. The article calls out several myths about learning, the first of which is that “the basics should be learned so well that they become second nature.”

Undergraduate engineering courses tend to be packed to the brim with memorizing equations, practicing over and over how to approach problem sets, and the like. I’ve always believed that this was the only way to approach engineering education, but as I look back, it’s clear that a lot of this memorization didn’t make a very meaningful impact on me, given the amount that I’ve forgotten after only 2 years after undergrad. This focus on memorization is a hard mold to break, as I think it is valued in industry, even if not practiced. One time at a job interview for an internship, I was asked to recite a series of equations that are fundamental to civil engineering. Fortunately I knew the equations at the time, but I’m sure I couldn’t recite them today.

The article suggests that the alternative may be to present learning opportunities as situations where students have options about how they choose to apply knowledge and approach problems “mindfully”, which in turn has been shown to make students more easily adaptable to change. This approach makes a lot of sense: when I think back to solving problem sets in engineering, I was more likely to memorize an approach for solving problems rather than actually learn how to reason through a problem and mindfully reach a solution. Hopefully such mindful learning is a life-long skill rather than something to be memorized for a course and then quickly forgotten.

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