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.

Be ready to be a hero when you can

The lesson about academic integrity is the first lesson I had when I became a graduate student at Virginia Tech. It was required by the university and the funding agency which found me. When it came to quizzes and tests, I can choose the correct answer most of the time. It seems easy. Just be a good person and do the right thing. If you talk to people, they will say: yes, we need ethics and integrity. I have not heard anyone said “ethics is not a good thing” or “I do not have integrity.” But, will it still be an easy thing when I really face the situation in real life?

After watching an interactive movie, I have a deeper understanding of academic integrity. The movie is called The Lab. In this movie, a research misconduct happened and the lab got dismissed. Then time went back to before the misconduct happened. You can choose a character in the movie to play. I chose the graduate student because I am one.  As the story went, I felt the stress the student had. Sometimes it really hard to choose because it felt so real. I chose some option that looked like a “soft” solution, and I found that it did not work as I expected. I started to think if I report someone, what will happen to me and how that will affect my career? I will be isolated. I guess no one likes the feeling of having a sword hanging over the head.

Knowing that it’s would cause a hard situation to me if I choose integrity and against my colleagues, I feel heroic. It would be hard, but I’m not afraid. I’m a researcher who dare to challenge the standards and authorities. Why would I be afraid of being isolated? And being a Ph.D. student means being able to conduct research independently. Why would I be afraid of being alone? The great researchers are the ones with integrity. I would not be lonely as long as I’m with those great minds.

Universities Mission Statements

This blog comes from an assignment which asks me to find mission statements from two different universities. In my case, I found the mission statements from Cambridge University and Virginia Tech.

Cambridge University’s mission is:

“The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

This is the simplest mission statement I have seen during my search. Cambridge University is located in Cambridge, England. It is the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university. One fact that I noticed about this mission statement is that it does not address the local community. Most mission statements that I saw address the regional interest and then wider interest. I think the reason why Cambridge says “contribute to society” rather than “contribute to England and the society” is related to its location and its long history. Europe has many countries with small areas (comparing to U.S.). Low travel cost between Cambridge and other countries leads to stronger communication between them. The international communication has been established throughout its long history. So, I think, that explains why there is no regional interest addressed.

Virginia Tech’s mission is

“Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.”

Its land-grant property needs it to address global interest as well as regional interest. One point that catches my eyes is that Virginia Tech acknowledges individual’s “growth and opportunity” and “quality of life.” Comparing to Cambridge, Virginia Tech has more dimensions in its goal.

In most universities’ mission, teaching, learning, and research are mentioned. I think that’s the role of higher education: deliver the human knowledge until its boundary and expand the boundary.