Emotional Engineering

(Apologies for the late post)

Going through the readings and the TEDx talk for this week, I was struck particularly by both Palmer’s and Edelstein’s writings. Emotions, as Parker said, are so often overlooked and downplayed throughout American society and especially in Professional Environments. Nowhere have I seen this to be more true than in Engineering and metal casting. One, it’s a field dominated by men, who are often wrapped up in toxic masculinity which devalues and suppresses healthy emotional expression. Two, since it’s so based in Math and Science, which are typically thought of as cold and objective, emotions are heavily eschewed. Edelstein discussed the importance of humanities, with which, as an engineer, I couldn’t agree more. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard from fellow engineers “I’m an engineer, I don’t have to be able to write” or how stupid they think poetry or literature are. Hearing that infuriates me.

I think the TEDx talk was a great way to wrap up what we’ve been talking about all semester, of rethinking how the education system is supposed to work and what it can achieve. As in our earlier discussions, there are always The Big Questions that this brings up: how can we effect this change? How do we know it works?

Queerer things are yet to come

The main way I encounter issues of inclusive pedagogy in my teaching is in gender diversity (or the lack thereof). I teach to engineers and specifically metal casting students, which is a heavily male-dominated field (even more so than engineering at large). I worked at a foundry for the past two summers which had, out of a total of around 300 employees, probably 10-15 women employed. The introductory foundry classes I helped with last semester had, out of 35 students, about seven women (which is a much higher percentage than in past years). The class I currently teach has one female student out of 11.

I’m keeping these comparisons to a purely binary perspective; I’m not counting myself in these numbers. As a masculine-presenting, male-assigned, genderqueer bisexual, I break the molds (pun intended) and assumptions that people people make about me (not to mention stereotypes about people in casting and manufacturing at large). Now, in most if not all engineering classes I’ve taken, identity is not mentioned at all, so we’ll save the discussion about me for later.

Because women are often stigmatized in engineering and metal casting, I do put specific effort into making the female students, whether at the foundry or in my class, feel welcome and that they are capable of just as much as the men are (if not more, just for that extra encouragement). I make a conscious effort to recognize the one female student in my class when she does speak up and join in the class discussions, making sure she doesn’t get talked over by the rest of the class. At the foundry, I make sure not to snub the female students for attention or assistance in favor of the male students, but to instead give appropriate levels of assistance and instruction to all of the students (within the limits of my abilities).

 

Alrighty, let’s get into my experiences. I am white, and that has afforded me a great many privileges; my girlfriend is Indian, with a very distinctive non-English name, and I have seen a number of ways in which they have held her back or closed off opportunities that may have been available otherwise. I do my best to be aware of my privilege on that axis and to use it to give voice and space to those without.

I am perceived as male, which is a hell of a double-edged sword. As someone in engineering and metal casting/manufacturing, being seen as a man protects me from experiencing sex-based discrimination, but it stings me harshly because that’s not how I want to be seen. It’s an invalidation and erasure of my identity as a nonbinary (and bisexual, since everyone is assumed to be straight) person, and I don’t want to experience that. I want to live in a world where I can be seen and known as my authentic, out, queer self, but fear of social, physical, and employment-based reprisal and backlash keep the majority of my true expression restrained and “closeted”. I am publicly out, but I know that the majority of people who know that have no idea what it means, and I definitely don’t present the way I want–far too masculine.

In last week’s discussion, my hackles got a little raised when a question was asked about whether we should make a big deal out of these things, if we keep being told they’re not a big deal. It was a genuine and well-intentioned question, and I took no personal offense, but I had to immediately respond and say that yes, we should provide opportunities for students to make a big deal of their identities if they so choose. This is crucial for me because this space was never made available to me while I was figuring out that I was queer and especially when I had made the decision to come out publicly with a new name and pronouns but had no idea how. I was the one who had to start the conversation, every time. I was the one who had to bring these things up, out of the blue, with no idea if I’d get an accepting response or get kicked out of class for simply being who I am.

As a bisexual male-assigned nonbinary, both my gender and my sexuality face a tremendous amount of erasure from all over society, from both straight and gay people saying that “bisexuality isn’t real” or it’s “just a phase”, to cis people of all kinds and even some binary trans folks saying that nonbinary genders are made-up and don’t exist. Even within many nonbinary communities, nearly everyone is assumed to be female-assigned because every resource that’s labeled as being for Nonbinary Folk is all about binding or how to appear more masculine or how to find “gender-neutral” (read: masculine) clothing.

I apologize, this turned in to a rant. They…occur easily when I talk about these subjects because, go figure, I have strong feelings about them.

Okay, summary time! In my past schooling, I wish there had been a more visible presence of resources and guidance and education for young queer folk struggling to figure themselves out, and for professors to open up opportunities to talk about queerness in some capacity. It took me until my junior year of college to even consider the possibility that my gender may not be what I had assumed for over two decades because I never knew it was even an option until I met an openly trans person. Nobody talked to me about gender or sexuality or how there were more possibilities than being a straight boy. Had I learned about gender earlier, my life could’ve been entirely different. In my own teaching, I plan to create those opportunities I wish I’d had, in the hopes that I can help a younger generation to discover their true selves, unburdened by enforced ignorance.

The future of metal casting: giving physical form to digital designs

Today was the day I gave physical existence to a purely digital entity.

My Casting Design and Simulation class has been dealing with the gating (channels for metal delivery) design for this part for a few weeks now:

Those thin features on the side are 1/16″ thick.

The students collectively created a design:

CAD view Part Design

And we turned it into a mold:

CAD view half mold
Only half shown here, but you get the picture.

I created a simulation of the fluid flow and metal solidification behavior of this digital design:

Using these simulations, we also predicted where porosity defects were likely to occur:

One spot at the top, and one spot in the dead center.

Alongside these models, we got the mold design 3D printed, allowing us to exactly replicate our digital design. Up to this point, everything existed solely on a computer. Here was the first physical manifestation of our process.

Down there in the shadows are some very, very thin features that we were convinced would never work. They’d either get burned through or just snapped off entirely.

IMG_5727

The mold halves were put together, to prepare for pouring.

After we poured iron into the mold and gave it a little bit of time to solidify, we opened the mold to see our results:

Yeah, probably still a little hot.

The sand and metal were still so hot that we could actively see the binder burning out and the sand dropping off as it lost all strength:

The slots came out!

Here’s the money shot–a large porosity hole exactly where the simulation predicted:

So not only have we now confirmed the accuracy and validity of the simulation, we have given exact physical form to an object that had only before existed in a digital space. This is the future.

Success!

 

We’ll see how things go

My approach to teaching has so far been very reminiscent of Sarah Deel’s. I knew last semester that I would be teaching my current class and I started to think about how I would approach it. My initial thought was that it would be fairly lecture-heavy, because that was really all I had known, with a few exceptions here and there. But it was those exceptions that were some of the most engaging and exciting classes I took in undergrad. They were generally discussion-based classes, with readings assigned that were discussed during our face-to-face sessions. This seemed like a pretty reasonable approach, but my selection of literature (for casting design) was quite limited and certainly didn’t make for good reading. Knowing that there was baseline material I wanted the students to know, I started out with lectures, figuring I’d make things up as I went along. I knew that I didn’t want to be locked in to the exact styles I had experienced, so on the first day I asked my students to describe their learning styles and what they’re looking to get from my class. This helped tremendously in guiding my initial approach.

I am extremely thankful to be taking this class (Contemporary Pedagogy) in the same semester as my first teaching position, because it’s caused me to rethink many assumptions I had made about the practice of teaching and it has allowed me to incorporate, as best I can, a variety of techniques in the classroom to help students to be more engaged with the class at large. I’ve been able to develop my style in parallel with learning other ones, enabling me to start out with a reasonably effective approach rather than to build bad habits that must later be broken.

The first section of my class is lecture-heavy, to establish that fundamental knowledge base, much like the building a house metaphor used in our meetings. After finishing the lectures, I’ve moved on to a more discussion-heavy approach that is (maybe?) similar to the Socratic method (though not deliberately), where I’ll give a design challenge to the students and we’ll talk through their approach. Very soon we’ll be able to transition to the software phase of the class, which will in turn spawn more discussions, about design both of the castings themselves and of how to create and interpret the simulations and their results.

As far as personal connections/barriers, I think I’m fairly friendly with my students, since I was their TA at the foundry either last semester or last year. If there’s a building and environment at Tech that fosters camaraderie, it’s the foundry. It’s an inherently cooperative environment, because every has to rely on people besides themselves to get major things accomplished. I’m very lucky to have that foundation of camaraderie and friendship with my students. They will often see me in the MSE lounge and ask questions about my class, another class they’re taking, or just hang out. Now because of this, I do need to be careful to maintain a level of professionalism and avoid playing favorites and grade people fairly (note: fairly, not necessarily equally, especially since the students have widely varying levels of intuition for this type of design).

We’ll see how things go.

Stoking the Flames

At the end of last week’s post I touched on how I wanted to encourage creativity and original design, divergent thinking, etc. and laid out a few things I already do to facilitate that.

This week’s readings were nominally about assessment and grading, but they all repeated the point that students’ concerns about grades was a way to kill creativity. Dan Pink’s two videos on the science of motivation said the same thing as well: numerical or financial incentives to perform are actually counterproductive and possibly harmful when creativity and original thought is needed.

I’m definitely de-emphasizing grades in my class and in most cases they’ll either be simple completion grades or a more holistic look at someone’s work–if they applied the concepts they learned and demonstrated original thought, that warrants a high grade, regardless of the “success” of the design. Their final project grades will be based on how accurately they can interpret their own results, improve upon them, and communicate their work to myself and the rest of the class, rather than a point-by-point rubric.

I’ve been thinking of more ways to help people generate more and better ideas for their designs in class, and the one I keep coming back to is discussion and collaboration. There are few better ways to strengthen your ideas or see their vulnerabilities than being challenged. Discussion is a great way to add other perspectives into an idea and incorporate things you never thought of before.

However, there are risks to solely using discussion, with nothing else. Since everyone in the class has learned from the same lectures, you risk creating an echo chamber, where everyone come up with the same idea–the one idea that they were taught. I’m unfortunately low on real-world experience with the concepts that I’m teaching, but I’ll hopefully gain much more over the summer. Thankfully there is another grad student who has that veteran experience who sits in on the class regularly to contribute.

I definitely want to include more real-world examples and challenges in my class, like bringing in a finished casting from an actual production foundry and asking the students how it was gated. Or to acquire the gating design for a produced part and have the students improve upon it. Whether or not I’ll be able to actually get any of these real castings this semester is another issue entirely.

(To those of you who were intrigued by the title, my apologies for writing a post that does not live up to it)

Remember, There Isn’t a Right Answer

I said last week that metal casting students (engineers in general, but especially metal casters) are some of the most static and resistant to change of any at Tech. Well, they’re a faithful reflection of the field as a whole.

In an industry whose main job is to make the same parts in the same ways, for the sake of reliability, predictability, accountability, day in and day out, that repetition bleeds into many aspects beyond the physical process itself. It creates that mentality that change is scary and bad: “we know method A works because we’ve used it for twenty years. We don’t want to risk trying method B.”

There aren’t many fields where a textbook on modern practices and techniques can be thirteen years old and still completely up to date, but I have one, and it is.

I think a large part of the problem is with how casting students are taught. In the introduction and first chapter of Ellen Langer’s book The Power of Mindful Learning, she discusses the dangers of overlearning basic skills, to the point where they become rote and mindless. The danger, she says, is that when a skill can be performed without thinking about it, it cannot be modified or adapted to new contexts. She cites a number of examples where students were given lessons in either authoritative, this-is-the-single-correct-way styles or more open-ended, conditional, there-are-more-options-than-these styles.

This really struck a chord with me because I see the former style so often in our curriculum. The thirteen-year-old text, for example, presents its information as absolute fact, this-is-how-it’s-done. This is one of the two texts that I have available with which to teach my design class. The other text, while it takes an approach that’s very contradictory to the older book, still presents the information as this-is-the-only-true-answer. Neither of them allow for a great degree of latitude or creativity.

I’ve seen it in myself, where skills I’ve either acquired or have been taught have stayed fixed and static because I never thought to vary them or never thought I could. I did my best to fight back against it starting last semester, when I was helping to teach hands-on skills to new students at the foundry. I made sure to minimize how often I said “this is the way to do it” and instead phrase it as “one way that works for me is X”, and I encouraged them to find their own styles.

I want to continue this in my class this semester, especially since it’s a design class. Nothing will create worse designs than a mental framework that can’t change and is locked in a singular method of doing things. I want to encourage my students to get creative, to challenge and doubt what the texts, and I, tell them is “right” or “wrong”. And that’s the beauty of the computer simulations that we can do in my class: they can make as many different designs as they want, get things “wrong” a hundred times, and just keep playing around with it, keep tweaking their designs, until they find their unique vision and strategy for how to approach these issues.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked my students to tell me what they wanted to learn from the class and to describe their learning styles. One student’s response stands out to me in particular after having read Langer’s piece: they said that they would love to get a flowchart for the design process. This is a terribly stifling idea, that there’s a simple procedure to follow to make a good design. If making a flowchart works well for you, then by all means, make one. But I wouldn’t dare create one for the class and have them all follow it. Everyone needs to be creative and flexible, willing to fail, to try new things, because that is how you truly Create.

Because remember, there’s no right answer.

Trying to change in a static culture

I really like the idea of connected learning and I think it is a powerful and necessary one. It would be the height of foolishness, if we have this incredibly useful tool  (the internet) for research and information and collaboration and discussion, to not use it and to confine ourselves to a single classroom at a single time, not opening ideas up to the world at large. And certainly, as time has gone on, it has become increasingly necessary to rethink not just what we teach, but how we teach and why.

There has indeed been a lot of discussion and debate about how to rethink what we’re doing and how to incorporate this technology into our experiences. Even in fields that very often welcome new ideas (usually the humanities), it isn’t always easy to introduce new methods.

To me it seems like even more of a struggle to make it work in STEM classes. While STEM fields will often readily accept new technology, there’s a pervasive idea that there’s a certain “correct” way of teaching things, particularly in Engineering.

As both a student and a (new) teacher in an engineering discipline, I want (and need) to rethink my ideas about how to teach, because I don’t want to just teach the way I’ve been taught–that was the aforementioned set way of doing things and it was very formulaic. Predictability can be good, but often at the expense of creativity.

Now, when I see all these ideas being thrown around about online meetings, blogs, discussion, outside collaboration, students running the show, etc., I get immediately disheartened that I’m teaching in the field I am.

This semester, I’m teaching a course on the design and computer modeling of metal castings. I think there are definitely opportunities for collaboration and discussion, because even after all sorts of equations and calculations, Design never has a single, clear-cut, “correct” answer. That being said, I think I would struggle mightily to incorporate many of the other elements of Connected Learning into my class. Not just because I can’t necessarily see a use for them, but because of the students themselves.

Metal casting, as it exists at Tech, is one of the least academic fields we have. Virtually everyone (if not actually everyone) in the undergrad casting program is interested in one thing: a job. They’re taking casting classes so that they have a better resume and can give better interviews and be better at their future jobs, and they’re taking all their non-casting classes simply because they’re requirements and the students just want a good enough grade to graduate. They don’t seem to care very much about how they’re being taught or learning for the sake of learning–they just want jobs.

I can’t blame them, but it gets frustrating when your students are only there to get better jobs, rather than thinking about why they’re being taught and why they’re learning.

I know these kids; I’ve worked with them for at least a semester already, if not a year or two. I know they don’t give a rat’s ass about what pedagogy or praxes their professors are using. Hell, last year I saw one of my professors try something completely new in one of his classes (I was a TA, not a student), and it failed miserably. The students didn’t keep up with it, the professor couldn’t enforce it, and everyone was back to business as usual after a few weeks.

And most of those students are the ones I’m teaching now.

So, I definitely want to rethink my preconceived notions about teaching and to do my best to create a dynamic, engaging classroom that isn’t just the “sage on a stage” lecturing for an hour (as so many of the classes I’ve taken have gone), but it will certainly be a struggle to do so in the environment where I work.