Are the engineering students whom we graduated qualified as engineers?

For the topic of  Future of the University

Transcripts should certify the ability of the students. A degree in engineering should tell the graduate qualifies the job in this area. But now I can see the degree now is not as strong as it was.

There were several movements all over the world to make higher education more accessible to every. One side effect that came with those movements is the bachelor degree become a necessary for young people to find a job. And one criterion to separate the wheat from the chaff for the HR in the market is GPA of the student. This side effect makes the GPA become a matter of “life or death” for the students. Then one or two students begged for a higher grade at a certain time or situation. Then it won’t be fair to other students who did not get the privilege. To make everyone happy, the A and B students got “A”s in the end. The rest of the students shifted to a higher grade and only a few students failed. But the D students should not even get into the universities when higher education was still a highly competitive resource.

Someone may argue that that more educated people in the population is a good phenomenon: the country becomes a more civilized place. Is that true? Higher GPAs keep students stay at school longer. The overall inflated GPA devalued the diplomas. More students go to graduate school for a higher degree to show that they are qualified for non-research-involved jobs.

Metrics should be developed by a joint workforce from higher education and industries to show the value of the GPA in different universities. By doing this, the graduates won’t have the false confidence to conduct or to judge the work that they are not qualified of.

Do not use “excellent” to describe good students. Keep the “excellence” as excellence. I think that’s what should be changed in the future universities: stop the unnecessary changes.

Great Learning and what does it mean to be a scholar?

What does it mean to be a scholar?

There is a book called the Great Learning. The name of this book in Chinese is same as the word “University” in Chinese. For the past one thousand years, many Chinese scholars used the thoughts in this book to guide their goals. The highest goal in this book is to spread one’s thoughts all over the world. To achieve this goal, a scholar or a scholar to be should follow a path by achieving certain objectives. Those objectives reflect the different level of requirement for a scholar. I think the objectives also fit into nowadays scholars’ requirements.

A scholar should gain certain knowledge by studying or conducting research. This is the basics of a scholar. This is also most people’s first impression or even definition of a scholar. This is the aspect of understanding the physical world.

The reason why they need to gain knowledge is to learn the philosophy that can be applied into daily life so that they can become better persons. This is to have a good relationship with themselves.

Then they should deal with others. They start with their families because they know their families well. The good relationships between them and their families are based on their good personalities that they developed along their studies. After being able to handle families issues well, they need to be able to manage others up to the national level.

After all these being successfully done, they are ready to spread their thought all over the world.

A professor in a research university usually have duties on research, service, and teach. Correspondingly, a scholar should be knowledgeable and with good manners (research), be able to manage and serve a certain community (service), be able to spread their thoughts (teach).

Open Access

I’m in transportation engineering. Some, but not all, of the journals or conference proceedings now offer open access option. Transportation Research Part A through Part F followed this trend and support open access. Transportation Research was a journal from the UK. As each topic in Transportation became more profound and independent, this journal became six journals each focus on one topic. The six journals are now owned by Elsevier. Now take Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies for example.

Transportation Research Part C focuses on the research that addressing “development, applications, and implications, in the field of transportation, of emerging technologies from such fields as operations research, computer science, electronics, control systems, artificial intelligence, and telecommunications, among others.”

This journal offers open access option for authors. The public can download the open access papers without login. This journal is now partnering with Heliyon. Heliyon is an open access journal from Elsevier that publishes peer-reviewed research in all disciplines.

Now some researchers in transportation field put their data and code online to expedite peers’ understanding of their work. In my mind, the code should be more of a prototype than camera-ready. The non-open-accessed code used to create a barrier that needs experience and reputation to break through. This barrier can protect the quality of the publications.

Curriculum needs updates

I’m a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester for an introductory level transportation course. I do not have much TA experience, so my original expectation is slightly different from the reality happened later. In short, the students did not do as well as I thought they would be. Then I dug out the reason behind it: a large portion of the students chose this course because it is on the curriculum. The major name is Civil Engineering. Civil Engineering has many branches that only have a weak link with each other. Transportation is an area evolved from Civil and became a semi-independent discipline. My undergraduate major in China was Traffic Engineering. Even with Transportation Engineering, there are system-related area and infrastructure-related area. Last year, I noticed that I haven’t used the mechanics knowledge (which I learned during the first two years of my undergraduate study) since three years ago. Then I told my advisor that. He said, “I haven’t used that kind of knowledge for almost twenty years.”

This phenomenon exists in disciplines more than Civil Engineering.

The purpose of higher education should not stop at education. One goal of higher education should be prepare students for their career. Certain courses are in the curriculum because, at a certain time in the history, the knowledge was necessary for the corresponding occupation. In order to fulfill the future professional’s duty, they need to learn the knowledge before graduate. As time goes, new skills are required for certain jobs. New courses about the corresponding skills were added to the curriculum. However, the old courses are still in the curriculum. I’m not saying the old courses are no longer useful. They are useful for certain occupations but not useful for the newly evolved occupations.

I heard that after students graduating from colleges, the knowledge they learned has already been old fashioned. Then the internship becomes more important than the courses they learned in school. If that’s the case, why should they waste the time in school?

The C-level students may not have an awful mentality. The awful thing is that the universities pretend certain knowledge is useful and it’s for the students’ best to force them to learn. I heard an expression many times, “that is just too academia.” What brings such a reputation for academia? We need to think about it.

*The author wants to thank Conghui Wang for the discussion.

A faculty position interview

I have been in several faculty position interviews in Mechanical Engineering department this semester. I think one of them is very good at presenting himself for this interview. Now I’m writing it down share it with you all.

He started with his past and present research. When introducing the research, he mentioned the funding agencies, his lab, and his past students. When he introduced his past students, he mentioned how many of them are faculty members at the United States. (He is from Europe.) Then he talked about his future research topics. Until this point, it seems normal. But then he talked about the causes he taught and the courses at Virginia Tech that he can teach. Moreover, he proposed some new courses that he can be added to the current curriculum for mechanical students at Virginia Tech. After the showcase of his teaching ability, he started talking about the potential funding opportunities at a national level. He also mentioned the potential collaboration opportunities with faculty at Virginia Tech.

This is a good example that shows a faculty’s duties. A professor at a research university usually has teaching, research, and outreach (service) duties. When we talk about higher education job market, it seems that we focused too much on education. When newly graduated PhDs go to faculty position interviews, they talked all about their research. That’s kind of ignorance of faculty’s other duties. Many Ph.D. students I know who want to become professors in the future only prepare themselves with ample research capabilities. It’s important that they start to prepare themselves with knowledge and skills in education and outreach.

Using games to improve engineering education

Baby lions play with each other to learn how to fight.

Playing games is an ability that born with us. We invent games that come from real practice. Chinese chess is a game that mimics a small-scale war. Playing is an activity that can prepare the players for more serious jobs. Chinese chess was used to train army commanders.

I saw games been used in K-12 education. Portal 2 (a computer game) was used to teach physics is a middle school. Minecraft has a version for education. A friend of mine (who is a primary school student) has his homework to play a mathematic game during his fall break. That game was designed specifically for practicing math operation. K-12 education in some sense is more essential than higher education. Maybe that’s the reason why I do not see many games designed for higher education. However, in the engineering field, I think using games in teaching could be very helpful.

When I came to Virginia Tech, the first project that founded me was to develop educational games for undergraduate students. My graduate program is transportation engineering. In transportation, there are several areas that need to be covered during undergraduate study. I developed five web games that cover traffic planning, highway design, pavement design, traffic control, and traffic safety. I with my advisor also designed quizzes for these topics. We did before-and-after studies. In the studies, we let the students from an introduction to transportation class do the quizzes first and then play the games. After playing the games, we asked them to do the quizzes again. Since there is no other activity between the two quizzes and no feedback were given to them, playing the games should be the only factor that affects the quizzes scores. The results showed that most students got higher scores in the quizzes after the gameplay. We did the study several times, and the results were steady.

So, from my own experience, there is no doubt that the designed web games can improve students’ understanding of the targeting knowledge. However, that’s not the end of the story. The web games provide the possibility of customized teaching for each student. The game itself is an interactive visualization tool. It also provides a simulated world for students to explore. Students can get customized feedback based on their current understanding which can be revealed by their gameplay data. With the rising tide of data science, I can imagine the future educational games would be able to sense the students’/players’ level of understanding in the subjects and provide an enjoyable learning experience for them.

Higher Education in China

I introduced higher education in China in one of the PFP class at Virginia Tech. That was a brief introduction. I was thinking maybe some friends in the class may want to know more and some people out of the class may want to know some of it. There is a book in China written in 2000 years ago named Higher Education (or directly translated into “Great Scholarship”). The highest achievement of scholars is to spread their thoughts all over the world. So here I am to spread my understanding and experience of the higher education in China.

The higher education was there since ancient time. At that time, there was only one (central) institute in this land. The institute served as an advisor to the king. The modern universities started in the last decades of Qing dynasty. After the loss of the Opium War, Chinese government at that time (the Qing government) started to seek for methods to stand against the western world. The first modern (western) university is Called St. John’s University. People can easily sense the religion background. This university was established in 1879. The university I went for undergrad was Nanjing University of Technology (today’s Nanjing Tech) which can be traced back to Sanjiang Normal School (University). Sanjiang Normal School became National Central University during Republic of China time and then breaking into nine universities after 1950. Most of them are still in Nanjing. In 2002, eight universities celebrated their 100-year anniversary in Nanjing. And they can all be traced back to Sanjiang Normal School.

The ordinary way to get into a Chinese university is to go through Gao-Kao (the college entrance exam in China). The score you got in Gao-Kao is like the cash you hold. The score required (the price) for one university can vary based on demand. More students apply for one university, the higher the required score would be. The expected enrolled students’ number is pre-set. But the required score cannot drop to zero. There is a minimum enrollment score set by the government. There is political care for minorities. The minorities can get several extra points when they apply for universities. Education is a competing resource in China. Lower grade students could get a higher grade if they could receive a better education. So giving extra points to minorities is considered fair in China. There are also extraordinary ways to get into a university in China if you are extraordinary students. The universities have a certain power to enroll a certain portion of students without following the standard rules.

Most students’ college life starts with military training. The military training counts for credit hours for a student’s degree. The coaches of the training are mostly junior or senior cadets. Most people think the purpose of this training is not to prepare students for war but to engage them to fit into the new group and train their self-discipline.

Education is traditionally valued high in Chinese communities. We say, “it takes ten years to grow trees; it takes one hundred years to raise people.” I haven’t talked to all these 1.3 billion Chinese people. But from all the people I know, none of them don’t want to receive higher education. Because of the limited education resources, some of them could not. They were diverted to another job friendly route, junior college or so-called career school, after their middle school.

Most universities are public schools, so the tuition is cheap. One year’s tuition including comprehensive fee can usually be paid with a student’s first month’s salary. There are also scholarship and fellowship provided by the government or companies for students with excellent academic standing or financial need. Although tuition is mostly paid by the students’ parents, the student loan is always another alternative.

Since most universities’ budgets come from government funding, a campus is usually expected to be public accessible. Mostly any person can walk into a classroom and audit the class.

Based on the students’ area, they will have to do a thesis or a project to show that they are qualified to graduate. Most universities require students to pass a certain level of College English Test and one computer skill test to be able to apply for degrees.

Recording Videos for Higher Education

When I was a freshman, I made my first video tutorial. It was to teach engineering students how to used Auto CAD (a software that was widely been used by civil or mechanical engineers at that time) to draw things. At that time, my video was spread by copying/pasting with flash drives. I did not expect years later, college courses being taught using video tutorials would become a proper approach to higher education and the internet can fasten the spread of the tutorials this much.

The reason why I did the tutorial was simply to save my time. I was intensively trained to master Auto CAD. In the meantime, I was in a class that needed to use Auto CAD. When the final exam approaching, my classmates started to reach me. Be able to say no is a good property that I did not get at that time. And eventually, when the number of students coming to me reached ten, I cannot manage to do it. I did not want some of them to feel I was unfair to them. Then I recorded a video describing how to use this software. Then whenever someone asked me to help them with Auto CAD, I give them the video that I recorded. It was a successful practice. A friend came to my dorm one night and said that “I can hear your voice all the way when I came here.”

One year later, I became a software trainer in the CAD center at the university. I recorded more videos and coded scripts to make the video interactive. When it came to the tests, the professor allowed the students to copy my tutorials to the computers for the tests. He thought that “as long as the students can learn the skills, it does not matter when and how.”

Now I realize that video lectures mean more than saving the lecturer’s time. Here are two facts that I noticed in education:

  • Educators may teach something subconsciously that they do not intend to teach.
  • Students may not be able to digest the whole knowledge body that was taught by the lecturer in the class.

I was in a communication class. In that class, I was asked to do some movements and make sounds with the movement. Another student was supposed to learn what I did and repeat what I did within a short time. She did some movements I did not think I did. And it turned out that I did that without noticing it. The Same concept can be applied to education. Recording video allows the lecturers to review what they said. When I recorded the video, I re-recorded and edited several times. I made mistakes in convey the concepts and skills. If I recorded the video as I was talking to the students, making corrections, the video does not look good and the students will be confused by the zigzag to the true knowledge.

When I was in classes offered by other departments (not Civil Engineering), I was easy to get lost when I heard some terms that I haven’t heard about. I found that my life became much easier when the professors followed textbooks that I can reach. I can review the classes later with the help of the textbooks. Textbooks are helpful because they are concise and precise. But there are concepts that are hard to describe using words or images. An image worth a thousand words; and a video worth a thousand images.

Like anything else, only the videos made with efforts are effective. I also see tutorials on YouTube that are worse than a textbook or simply class notes. There are training in grad schools to teach students how to write properly. I guess that there will be more training that prepares future professors with video skills.