Diversity Awareness

Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and attending public schools meant that I was surrounded by a relatively diverse group of peers from a young age. I never realized that this was different from how all children grow up, it just was. This is the case for most children I think, they grow up thinking that their own experiences are shared by all people. This is why educating children about other experiences and teaching them how to be aware of their own perspective is so vital. It is also so important that we all become aware of how our brains work and how to become aware of the “hidden brain” as writer Shankar Vedantam coined it. I thought this quote really summed it up well,

So the problem is not that the plane has a pilot and an autopilot function. The problem is that sometimes without the pilot even being aware of it, it’s the autopilot function that’s flying the plane.

Shankar Vedantam

By learning about how the subconscious sections of our brain function, we can better understand what causes us to react in certain ways and evaluate if we are “piloting the plane” or if we are allowing our automatic reactions to drive our decisions.

Over the years, I have worked as a part of many teams. From my own experiences, I have observed that teams that are comprised of diverse individuals seem to work better. This is also supported by in the article How Diversity Makes Us Smarter from Katherine W. Phillips.

Finally I wanted to address being uncomfortable. In some situations, exposing ourselves to diverse experiences can feel uncomfortable. I think that this is completely normal and actually a good thing. The feeling of being uncomfortable is a sign that we are extending beyond our current levels of knowledge and understanding.

Don’t Go for the Presliced Experience

“A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. Being mindless, colloquially speaking, is like being on automatic pilot.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

Promoting mindfulness in learning is a concept that I think is extremely important in providing students with real tools that they can use instead of just checking the boxes of a curriculum. After reading the first chapter in the book, “The Power of Mindful Learning,” by Ellen Langer, I was really struck by how prevalent rote learning really is and how ineffective it can be. I also really enjoyed the many musical examples that she used.

It was very interesting/alarming to see how creativity is stifled when people are taught using traditional techniques. Throughout my educational experience, the majority of the classes I have taken relied primarily on the ideas of memorization and repetitive practice to master concepts. I think that this culture of teaching and learning is especially prevalent in the field of mechanical engineering, which I find ironic because one of the main duties of an engineer will be to solve problems in creative ways. It is essential that engineers can adapt the skills that they learn to novel situations that often do not have well defined constraints. Adopting a mindful approach would be a much better method for educating engineers, and really all students.

I also connected with the idea of “Sideways Learning” and how the methods we use to partition skills actually prevents true mastery of the information.

“Mindfulness creates a rich awareness of discriminatory detail. Theories that suggest that we learn best when we break a task down into discrete parts do not really make possible the sort of learning that is accomplished through mindful awareness of distinctions. Getting our experience presliced undermines the opportunity to reach mindful awareness. Sideways learning, however, involves attending to multiple ways of carving up the same domain.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

It is so important to real understanding that we are not just taking our “presliced” knowledge. To truly understand, you must look at the whole and dissect it for yourself; discovering the different parts and having the freedom to explore it from all points of reference. Learning in a mindful environment promotes this type of thinking.

I also really appreciated the discussion that Langer included about pianists and the idea that a truly amazing performance requires not only mastery of the technical parts of the music, but also the ability to convey the emotion and the performers individual adaptation of the music to create a unique performance. I thought this was a great demonstration of how important mindfulness can be.

“If a pianist is preoccupied with the voluntary, manipulable end of the spectrum of neurological possibilities, this preoccupation resounds in the music. The performance sounds calculated, not shaped from a spontaneous response. Hence critics often comment on virtuosos who, for all their technical brilliance, are unfeeling, or mechanical, or characterless, and so on.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

Teachers must change their material to be more mindful, but they can also incorporate the lesson of the pianist into their pedagogy by not just being a master of the material but also learning how to convey it in a mindful way.

The best part is that Langer found that students actually liked the experience of mindful learning more than traditional memorization techniques. This makes sense to me. Students want to succeed and they also want to be able to express their creative and unique ideas.

Dream Team

Nowadays, there are a lot of great new technology, software,  and apps that can be used to create learning games or interactive course content. This increased gave the instructors and developers an easy way to visually design their courses. However, they must look at the best way to achieve the simplicity and efficiency of visually pleasing and professional content presentation. When developing a learning game or any interactive course content we need to learn more about how students receive, process, retain the information, and hopefully retrieve it when needed. Theories of learning—specifically those based in cognitive sciences and the study of how knowledge is acquired—contribute to our understanding of how materials can be presented for effective learning and performance. Also, We need to look at the content it self and how to chunk it and organize it so it’s not overwhelming for the students, or if it’s not providing the students with all information they need to learn. To achieve the set of goals a learning game or interactive learning content needs to meet, a team of subject experts,  instructional designers, and graphic designers have to play their part in this process.

Let say you need to develop an interactive course content for an engineering class, then you will need a subject expert in the content you are covering, this individual is in-the-know about what needs to be included in course. The instructional designer, on the other hand, will utilize instructional design principles and learning theories to achieve the learning goals and fill the knowledge gaps. Then the graphic designer will be in charge of all the graphs and animations, which will be used to develop this content.




A sadly pragmatic take on Dr. Wesch’s TED talk

The TEDxKC video “What Baby George Taught Me About Learning” by Dr. Michael Wesch, was inspiring but seemed a bit too idealistic. At one point he lamented the fact that despite all of his efforts, his students were still most concerned about their grades, rather than learning the material. But how could that ever not be the case?

If we are totally honest, the majority of students at any college are attending primarily for the job opportunities their degree affords. Certainly “expanding our horizons” and improving our understanding of the world is a great benefit – and I recognize that this was the original aim of tertiary education – but few could afford this experience if it didn’t also provide significant employment benefits. This has never been more true than it is today, when student loan debt is crippling, tuition costs have skyrocketed, and most white-collar jobs absolutely require the once-optional BA.

Doing some back of the envelope calculations, just 30 years ago, a year of tuition at VT cost the equivalent of about 500 hours of minimum wage work. One could pay for the entire year’s tuition with a summer job. Today that figure is closer to 1900, almost a full year of full time work. Couple that with the fact that 30 years ago a BA was mostly optional, while today it is required to manage a Starbucks. Add to this the fact that a degree from a good school like VT can be worth over $500,000 over a 20-year period. Can you really blame students for obsessing over grades?

By the time students reach Dr. Wesch’s class, they must have invested tens of thousands of dollars, likely put themselves deep into debt, and know their grades will literally dictate the rest of their lives. A few bad grades could make the difference between getting into a good grad school with funding, or paying their own way at some R3. It could be the difference between even getting into med school at all, or in getting an internship with their dream employer instead of ending up in a cubicle farm in a job they hate.

Until this changes, students will always prioritize grades above actual learning, especially in an elective subject.

I admire Dr. Wesch’s idealism, and I hope to encourage students to love both the material and the act of learning itself, but we cannot allow ourselves to forget how important grades are to these students. If they are truly concerned about their futures, learning will be the last thing on their minds.

Welcome – First Week Blogging Prompt

Dear GEDI’s! I write in great anticipation of meeting you all in person this evening. I am eager to get to know you and to begin a journey of self-discovery, reflection, and collaborative inquiry that will take us not just through the end of the semester, but, if we do it right, far far beyond (perhaps to a galaxy far, far away….).

Once we’ve made introductions and worked through the logistical details, we will talk a bit about connected learning and how we will use the network in this course. After all of that, I hope the following will give you some guidance and inspiration as you set up your blog and formulate your first post:

Blogging guidelines for week one:

Everything is on the table as long as it engages the readings for next week and /or the topic of networked learning. You might want to respond to the readings in the context of the discussion we shared this evening.

You might want to reflect on your current understanding of pedagogy — connected or otherwise — knowing that this might change. Whatever approach you take, know that it will be fine, and that your colleagues will be attentive, interested readers.

Bonus Force Points:

Check out and play with Hypothes.is, an amazingly powerful web annotating tool.

Double Bonus Points:

Read and maybe even add to the Hypothes.is conversation about Gardner Campbell’s article on Networked Learning as Experiential Learning. (If you’re looking for me, my screen name in Hypothes.is is “Laika57”.)

Where do I go from here?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

Now that we have been thinking about memory, it is interesting to think about how we apply things that we know to different situations. This is known as transfer.

Transfer of information can occur in a couple of different ways. Information that was learned previously can be transferred to new settings, we can transfer what we learn in a classroom to things in our daily life such as work, and we can transfer new ideas to new situations.

There are several necessary components that help when transferring information from one context to another:

  1. For transfer to occur, there needs to be a certain amount of initial learning that has already happened. In other words, to be able to transfer information to a new context, there needs to be a certain amount of existing information that can be transferred.
  2. New learning is based on previous learning, experiences, memories, etc. When we learn new things, we relate that information to our previous learning and experiences.
  3. Information that is more abstract (less specific to a certain context) can help facilitate the transfer of information to new contexts.
  4. Transfer is a process. It takes time and intentionality and it can be challenging.

So what can educators do to facilitate transfer for our students? Well, we can try to explicitly connect what students are learning with what they previously learned. We can teach students more abstract concepts as opposed to specific, highly contextualized concepts. We can give students time to transfer that information to the new setting. And we can gauge students prior learning to help them correct any misconceptions or help them make new connections.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn.
  • Simons, P. R. J. (1999). Transfer of learning: Paradoxes for learners. International Journal of Educational Research, 31(7), 577-589.

Now what was I doing?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

There are many times when my memory seems to have failed me. Sometimes I walk into a room and don’t remember why I went into the room. Some days I can’t remember what I did the previous day. Sometimes I just block things from my memory and other times I wish I could block things from my memory but seem unable to do so. And sometimes I get the wrong idea in my head and it just sticks there.

Memory is a very interesting thing. It can be so helpful, but it can also be problematic at times too.

There are three different types of memory: semantic memory, episodic memory, and procedural memory. Episodic memory is memory related to experiences that we have had, semantic memory is the memory of facts and information about the world, and procedural memory is the memory of how to do things.

Memories get stored and we can later recall our memories, bring that information back up in a conversation, and sometimes we can even forget our memories.

So how do things get stored in long-term memory? First, information is encoded, meaning it is registered. This information is then stored for a period of time and can be retrieved at a later date.

But there are many different things that can affect our memory.

When information is first encoded, it may be related to other information that is already stored in memory. For example, when encoding information, I might explain the information in a way that makes sense to me and that is related to my prior experience and memory. But those connections may not necessarily be correct.

When information is stored, we may have problems recalling that information at a later time, especially in a different context. We have all experienced the lapse in memory when we go to say someone’s name (even if it is someone we know well), and their name just sits on the tip of our tongue without us being able to recall their name. The name usually comes back to us at some point, but there still is that period of time where we can’t remember the name.

And if we repeat things enough, we can sometimes develop misconceptions about a topic or idea. This video is an interesting demonstration of this idea.

Students are asked why we have seasons. Students give a variety of explanations based on their past experiences and through incorporating new information with existing information. However, when we tell ourselves these explanations over and over again, they can become ingrained and stored in our memory. Even if these ideas are not correct. And then these ideas become harder to correct the more they are enforced.

These challenges with memory can cause problems and frustrations for students. So how can we help correct any misconceptions and help students store accurate information in their long-term memory?

Here are a few tips:

  • First, find out what students know or believe at the beginning of a class/unit/week/day. This will help the instructor understand what students may be having a hard time with or what the students may have misconceptions about.
  • Have students connect the new knowledge to previous knowledge (warning! You don’t want students connecting new knowledge to incorrect existing knowledge. That is why it is so important to try to understand what students know about a topic in the beginning).
  • Have students reiterate what they learned at the end of each class period, and start out the next class period with a brief review.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Matlin, M. Chapter 8: General knowledge. In Cognition (7th ed., pp. 239285). Wiley: Hoboken,
  •  Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American psychologist, 54(3), 182.
  • Tulving, E. (1984). How many memory systems are there? American Psychologist40, 385 398.

Where am I going? (Part 2)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

In the previous post, Where am I going? (Part 1), I mention automaticity and some of the challenges that come when students (or any of us) are on autopilot. But is automaticity all bad?

In a word, no.

Automaticity can be a negative thing in education when students go through the motions without thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it. But automaticity can also help students focus on specific parts or more challenging aspects of a problem. In general, this automatic processing for a particular task doesn’t require an individual’s attention, doesn’t need the individual’s effort to do it, and is processed quickly. So if students can do some things automatically, they can focus their attention on other parts of the problem.

Let’s think about an example.

When I first learned how to ride a bike, I was not focused on the rules of the road and how to ride on the road with cars and not get hit (in fact I was very far away from any cars and roads and people). All I was focused on was how to not fall over. And that took a long time for me to get to the point where I didn’t fall. But once riding a bike was automatic, I could focus on other things like riding my bike to my friend’s house and figuring out the best route to get there. I didn’t have to focus on not falling over (usually) and I could focus on riding with traffic, obeying traffic laws, and other things that you should do when riding a bike. But I had to practice riding a bike first.

The same is true in educational settings. Students often need to practice simpler problems before we throw all the complexities at the student. But once some things are automatic, students can focus their efforts and attention on more challenging aspects of a problem.

Let’s think about a few more examples related to the education of engineering students.

  • When students have mastered topics such as algebra, they can focus their attentional resources in their upper-level math and engineering courses on the material that is specific to that class (be it differential equations, dynamics, design courses, etc.). This automaticity with the math concepts can help students focus their attention on other material which could help them develop expertise in these other topics.
  • In some situations, engineering students participate in design classes early on in their engineering education. These early design classes can give students opportunities to practice using a design process (identifying requirements, evaluating alternatives, researching information, etc.) that makes them familiar with the design process. Then in future design classes (or once the students begin working as engineers during internships or after graduation), students are already familiar with the design process and can focus their attention on other aspects of their work or project.

Practice can help students develop automaticity. Practice can help students be more efficient in what they do, can result in a shift in how students approach problems, and can help students be more knowledgeable about a topic which requires less attention to solve problems related to that topic. That is often why we have students practice things multiple times. This helps it stick, helps it get to a point where it requires less processing.

So automaticity can be a good thing if it is something that students have gained a lot of practice with and that allows those students to focus their attention and efforts on specific parts or more challenging aspects of the problem. However, as mentioned in the previous blog post, automaticity can be a bad thing if students go through problems and courses automatically without understanding what they are doing and without gaining expertise with that topic.

Here are a few suggestions to help students use their automatic processing to solve new and different problems without letting students use that automaticity to avoid thinking about difficult problems.

  • Have students explain what they are doing and why. This could help students better understand their own processing (whether it is automatic or not), and helps make that processing more explicit to both the student and the instructor.
  • Have students summarize key steps in a process, key ideas in a paper, key points in a chapter, etc.
  • Explain various aspects of a process being taught to students instead of just listing steps in the process.

Where am I going? (Part 1)

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

Many times, I find myself on autopilot; just going through the motions without really thinking about what I am doing.

Automaticity, while there currently is not consensus about the exact meaning of the term, is this idea of processing information with little to no attention (Moors & De Houwer, 2006) – it is this idea of autopilot. We have probably all experienced this in our daily lives: we drive home after work instead of driving to the grocery store, we read something – a news article, a book – and have no idea what we read at the end.

Another place where we can see this automaticity is in the classroom. Students (myself included) can end up just going through the motions, following a script, without thinking about what we are really doing. Have you ever read something, gotten to the end of a paragraph or section, and realized that you have no idea what you read? Because I have. And students can do that too. Just going through the motions.

Another place where I have seen this “just going through the motions” is in students’ problem-solving. Novice engineering students, when solving problems, may just follow a series of steps because that was what was presented to them. Instead, we want students to be problem-solvers, not just recipe followers.

Let me give you an example. For solving statics problems, the statics for dummies cheat sheet (here) lists just a few necessary steps:

  1. Set up a free body diagram for the whole system
  2. Write equilibrium equations for the support reactions
  3. Write equilibrium equations for the internal forces
  4. Solve for the unknowns

Seems simple enough, right? But when students follow these steps, do they really understand the different forces that are at play or are they just going through the motions? Do they understand how to represent the free-body diagram and represent relevant forces? It may be hard to tell.

In addition to automatically following a set of steps to solve a textbook problem which has a defined answer, students can act automatically when solving ill-defined problems too. When solving these ill-defined problems, students often move through the problem formulation and idea generation phases quickly and move on to picking the best idea. With these ill-defined problems, it can be challenging to get students to really focus on the complexity of problems and the variety of possible solutions.

However, we want students to be able to solve a wide variety of problems and to be able to transfer the information that they learned in one context to another context. [For a more information about transfer, look here: Where do I go from here?]

To help students avoid falling into this trap of automatically going through the steps, here are a few strategies that can help.

  • Have students summarize what they read. Having students write a summary, even a really short summary, can help students avoid just going through the motions when reading a textbook or article.
  • Have students explain how they solved a problem. Teachers can ask students to both solve a textbook problem numerically and write an explanation for how they solved the problem. This can help the teacher identify if students are just following a series of steps exactly as they were presented, of if students are identifying the various nuances in the problem.
  • Have students solve a variety of problems that don’t necessarily look the same (but use the same principles)
  • For ill-structured problems: Have students identify the problem components, constraints, and criteria
  • For ill-structured problems: Have students generate multiple possible solutions
  • Give students cases or problems that differ in some meaningful way and have students compare the cases.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Logan, G. D. (1988). Toward an instance theory of automatization. Psychological review, 95(4), 492.
  • Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: a theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological bulletin, 132(2), 297.
  • Schneider, W., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: I. Detection, search, and attention. Psychological review, 84(1), 1.
  • Shiffrin, R. M., & Schneider, W. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: II. Perceptual learning, automatic attending and a general theory. Psychological review, 84(2), 127.
1 2