When engineers take philosophy

My undergraduate institution (Notre Dame) has a lot of liberal arts requirements for all its students. As a school that is largely non-STEM, they firmly believe (and I agree) that the students should leave not just trained for the job they want, but as truly educated, well-rounded people.  And that is how I ended up taking “The Philosophy of Science Fiction.”  Almost ten years after college, I reference that course more than any other I took in college (including, sadly, my engineering courses).

We watched movies, including The Matrix, Dark City, and Twelve Monkeys (and an episode of Futurama). We read short stories by authors like Heinlein and Asimov and academic papers by Turing, among others.  We discussed the nature of consciousness and the soul, the possibility of free will, the concept of time.  These were the same fundamental questions that were discussed in my (much-hated) philosophy seminar, but now in the context of science fiction.  Instead of saying, “What is a soul?,” we said, “What if you swap two people’s brains?  Do their souls go with them?” or “Could robots have souls?”  Instead of saying, “What is time?,” we said, “What are the differences between the Back to the Future version of time travel and the Futurama version?  What about Twelve Monkeys?  Terminator?”

The class was fascinating, and it taught me some valuable lessons that have carried over to many different parts of my life, including engineering. For one, question everything.  Nothing is certain.  Time may not move in a straight line.  Robots may have souls someday.  The process your client just described to you that he wants you to simulate may not actually work like that.  Nothing is certain.  Also, it’s ok to not think in a straight line (that’s from my roommate, who edited my papers and got tired of reading “essays in a lab report format.”)  Sometimes things go in circles and you have to keep revisiting the work you thought was done.  Sometimes you get stuck in a time loop.  It happens, and that’s ok.  Finally, I learned that it’s much more fun to watch The Matrix than to read Plato.

Wait, girls aren’t good at math?

I have female friends in STEM fields who were told, some at a very young age, that “girls aren’t good at math.”  Some said that adults expressed surprise at their abilities in math and science, because that was strange for girls.  Even my husband remembers being aware as a child that girls weren’t supposed to be good at math.  In the readings from “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele, the gap between women’s and men’s success in math is mentioned many times.

Honestly, this is all very strange to me.  I was a girl who loved math, now grown into a female engineer, and I don’t remember a single time before high school when anyone told me anything negative about girls and math.  I remember being encouraged to enjoy math by many female teachers (I don’t think I had a male teacher until seventh grade).  I remember being called a “little engineer” by my parents at a very young age (normally in exasperation when I did something that made perfect sense to me, but apparently didn’t to the rest of the world).  I remember being the fourth grade “fast math” champion and being inordinately proud of a skill that, I realize now, is really not very useful.  I remember doing a report on Grace Hopper (the inventor of the first computer compiler) in sixth grade and being more impressed by the fact that she was a Navy admiral than the fact that she was a female computer scientist (my father was in the Navy).

I realize that my childhood was out of the norm in this way.  I honestly don’t know why I didn’t hear about this incredibly pervasive stereotype.  In light of the studies Steele discusses, I do wonder if or how this has affected my academic performance.  Did anyone else have a similar experience?

What are these “note” things anyway?

I should start this by saying that I am all in favor of active learning. I think that lecturing at students is much less likely to result in learning than actively engaging them through discussion or tasks. However, as Robert Talbert says in his blog post “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” sometimes lecturing really is the best way to get the information across. No matter how dynamic and interesting a speaker you are, though, lecturing can cause problems.

I don’t mean problems with attention spans or distractions. Yes, students today have short attention spans, but no shorter than they were ten years ago, or fifty, or a thousand. And yes, students get distracted today, but they’ve always gotten distracted. It’s easier now with constant access to the internet, but it certainly happened before that.

The big problem I notice is with note-taking. Specifically, most students don’t know how to do it. So many times, I’ve seen students write in their notes exactly what the professor wrote on the board, but no more – none of the commentary that makes the subject understandable to them, personally. Or, even worse, I’ve seen students taking no notes at all, saying, “The professor will post the slides later, I don’t need to write anything down.” They’re missing most of the value that note-taking provides. It’s not just a way to remind yourself later what happened in class. It’s also an exercise that forces you to listen to a statement, try to understand it, decide what’s important, and write that down. Note-taking is a good tool to turn passive listening into understanding, memory, and learning. (See here for an interesting study on the value of taking notes with a pen vs. with a computer.)

I don’t remember ever being taught how to take notes, but I went through high school without a lot of the technology that’s ubiquitous today. PowerPoint was used, but not nearly to the same extent, and we were rarely given the slides afterwards. We owned laptops, but almost never brought them to class unless they were specifically needed that day. Note-taking wasn’t optional, and everyone seemed to pick it up themselves and develop their own style. Since that doesn’t seem to happen anymore, maybe note-taking is a skill that should be taught in freshman workshops. If lectures are sometimes inevitable, we need to make sure our students get something out of it, and part of that is knowing how to take good notes.

Grading isn’t great, but is it sometimes necessary?

I am all for de-emphasizing grades in school, from kindergarten to college. I think that the focus on outcomes to the exclusion of all else (including actual learning) has caused a mess in our grade schools and high schools. I, like many others, am tired of hearing, “Will this be on the test?” and I applaud the efforts of teachers who have eliminated most grading altogether, as mentioned in “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn.

That being said, I don’t know how to make it work in my field. It seemed that the examples in the Kohn article were mostly from humanities fields, talking about giving feedback on subjective assignments like essays. There is no right or wrong answer on things like that. You can make grammatical mistakes, but that may be less important than the content of the essay as a whole. How could this be applied to science- or math-based disciplines, where the material is often more objective?

I currently TA a class that is very math-intensive (specifically linear algebra). On a particular quiz, students may be demonstrating their ability to apply a specific algorithm they learned that week. If they apply the algorithm wrong – that is, if they follow the wrong steps or do them in the wrong order – what kind of feedback could I give beyond showing them how to do it correctly? That’s not particularly substantive – they’ve seen those demonstrations in class, their notes, and their textbook. Would that be enough to impress upon them the importance and urgency of learning the algorithm correctly? As is the case with many classes, the topic of the next quiz, a week later, builds upon the algorithm being tested.

I think that sometimes an assessment that has a real impact, like a grade, may be necessary to motivate students to learn foundational topics. I would hate to see a student struggle later in the class because they didn’t understand the early material and “didn’t think it was that important.” Any thoughts?

Should we really be mindful all the time?

I have mixed feelings about the chapters we read from Ellen Langer’s “The Power of Mindful Learning.” I agree that we should never become complacent in our teaching. As soon as we automatically slip into “lecture mode” and stop noticing that our students are asleep, we’re no longer really teaching anything. To paraphrase Ken Robinson, if no one is learning, then you’re not teaching. I also agree that presenting one method of doing something, like serving a tennis ball, as “the one true way” is detrimental to students’ learning. I learned to add by adding the ones place, then the tens, then the hundreds, and so on. Some children learn to add a little differently, but in the end we always get the same answer.

However, I disagree that being mindful of absolutely everything we’ve learned is always beneficial. I think it’s good that we automatically drive on the left side of the road in this country. Yes, it causes problems when driving in other countries, but when in America, we just don’t have to think about it. That frees up brainpower to do other important things, like watch for pedestrians.

Sometimes putting some tasks on autopilot lets you accomplish amazing things. For instance, I have been belly dancing for about four years now. By this point, certain moves, like shimmies, are ingrained in my muscle memory. That means that I can perform a lot of other moves while shimmying because I don’t have to consciously think about the shimmy anymore. Similarly, isn’t it possible that in math for instance, someone would be able to solve really complicated problems because they don’t have to waste brainpower thinking about how to differentiate? Maybe there are some things that should be mindless.

Connected Learning: Grade School vs. College

I love the idea of connected learning. I think that too much of our education from grade school to college is kept completely separate from the rest of our lives. Students put in their time with classes and homework, but are rarely excited enough about the material to explore it outside of that. Especially at the grade and high school level, the emphasis on standardized testing is a big part of that. The “facts that all students should know” are taught, but they never really get to engage with the subject and delve deep into it. I would love to see a system where a second grade class spends an entire period talking about the sun, or raptors, or pandas, just because someone asked an interesting question and started a discussion.

On the college level, at least in some subjects, I think connected learning would be more difficult to implement. In a philosophy class or an English class, a student might blog about an interesting book they read and invite comments from their classmates. In a class about database management, no one is going to blog about the interesting database they saw or tweet out the exciting article they read about databasing. Even for those students who want to delve deeper, they won’t have the requisite skills to do so until they’ve completed the course. I just don’t know how the students could engage with the material outside of class while they’re still taking it. If anyone has any thoughts, I’d love to hear them!