Industrial Education in the Information Age

“And when science proposes to art besides that peace-full sea
I’ll be that cat with a ring on a pillow shouting finally”

Aesop Rock – “Water

Seth Godin’s clarion call for education reform recognizes the need to create students who are knowledge-able and not simply regurgitors of the status quo. His critique of the standard education in k-12 and beyond in the United States adopts a global perspective concerning the status of US education next to other developed competitors. Sitting next to Dan Edelstein’s article concerning innovation and the liberal arts, it’s clear that the death of our collective power to innovate and adapt in the next fifty years is inscribed in our inability to understand the role of the liberal arts as the foundation of technical and social knowledge. Simply stated, the inability to reason beyond given structures is stymied by a myopic view of technical knowledge as the only goal of education. STEM education threatens the ability of the liberal arts to exist thus destabilizing a cornerstone of democracy itself by transforming educational systems into productive mechanisms narrowly focused on economic applicability. Ironically, the loss of the liberal arts and humanities within the vision of education is supported by broader philosophical initiatives to make the study of philosophy a luxury of the rich at best and a waste of time for the poor at worst.

Parker Palmer  grapples with ethical issues involved in collective action problems in an institutional context. The growth of massive bureaucracies as tools of governance in private and public sectors signals the need for understanding the individual in relation to the collective and the ethical problems that may arise from this social arrangement. Palmer calls for more students to develop an ethical sensibility that they can carry into their work lives as they assume positions within larger organizations that harness the collective power of individuals for larger purposes. The modern firm, however, has the power to reshape the globe through its reach and requires those working within it to understand their place and responsibility within it. This sensibility is best cultivated by a liberal arts education that stresses open-ended inquiry. Creating an ethical and philosophical sensibility is difficult. It does not fit well on multiple choice exams, it’s not easy to quantify and ethical questions are rarely “answered” full stop.

Philosophy, for example, is not full of “facts” that one can put on a test and the skills developed in a philosophical education require the close attention of skilled teachers who push and challenge students to think harder about the basics of their existence. While these skills aren’t the best for building widgets, they are part and parcel of humanistic education that develops a well-rounded reasoner and community participant. Philosophical inquiry requires creativity and carefully articulated views that promote innovative thinking.

Technical, widget-centric education has its place but the delivery method is outdated. Rote memorization, standardized testing, and sage on the stage lecturing does not engage the fundamental skills required to be knowledge-able and thus deprives students of the practice needed to connect the dots. The writing is on the wall. The labor market itself is changing as we escape the mental cage constructed by an education system designed to stamp out compliant and quiescent industrial workers. Employers are seeing the strength of a liberal arts education as automation threatens those with market-reactive, technical degrees. The power to innovate comes from an ability to understand the status quo and improve upon existing information to bring something new into the world.

Our culture is ill-equipped to understand the power of ideas favoring instead a materialistic vision of innovation through gadgets predicated on an economic normativity governed by efficiency. Smaller, faster, more accessible and more arms on the information age Swiss Army Knife conforms to the techno-utopian desire to be free from bondage and inconvenience but the question remains whether we’re actually better off with each successive technological advancement. Innovation seen in this way does not advance the human race beyond its immaterial confines that draw the limits of our collective understanding. We’re little more than apes with gadgets and this presents a dangerous situation as we fail to understand the ramifications of our technological advancement. The middle of the 20th century saw humanity invent the possibility of our collective destruction and we huberistically proclaimed that we had mastered the atom. Today, we can pluck information out of the air and communicate at light speed through a global network. This new capability brings new responsibilities and we need to first understand our selves in relation to our technology before we crack on toward the next new thing. This understanding will require the careful cultivation of students who have outgrown the sage on the stage classroom.

We cannot continue to rob children of the opportunity to buck the status quo by asking why one study is more useful than another. Technical knowledge needs to be interpreted and contextualized. The liberal arts are up to this task. The reverse is also true: the liberal arts need to understand the impact technology has on the world if we’re going to understand the advancement of our social being. Students can and should specialize and become excellent at one thing or another. Conceptually, however, the well rounded student will have a foundation in both the arts and sciences. The segmentation and funneling of students into vocational education that ignores the arts while touting itself as higher education is a farce. We cannot let one vision obliterate the other and say that our view is stereoscopic.

The Undivided Life

I don’t know why this last blog post was is being so difficult to write for me… But the more I think about it the more clear that muddiness becomes. It’s that point in the semester where panic ensues almost everyday and where the rest of your life seems to just be placed on hold until you survive that last week of classes – where you’re living an UNDIVIDED LIFE.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I have been a fan of Parker Palmer’s since I found his book The Courage To Teach. It was in this book that I first learned about teaching from the undivided self and I have already put the book he mentioned about this topic in our readings on my kindle wishlist. As in teaching and in life, we are not at our best when we are divided. I am at my best in the classroom when I bring all of who I am into that room – when I utilize & talk about my Cherokee heritage and values, when I connect my life as a entrepreneur to being a student, when I give examples from all aspects of my life – not just the “professional” ones. I am at my best in life when I am fulfilling my responsibilities as a wife, as a student & teacher, as a business woman and as just a person. When I divide or deny an aspect of who I am for too long, I begin to suffer in all of those aspects.

And I need to create an environment in my engineering classroom that allows students to be their undivided self as well. There are things that I love to do or was good at when I started my undergraduate engineering career that I honestly think were drilled, taught, or just pushed out of me. I want my students to be able to be all of who they are in my classroom, to not have to suppress or push down their creativity, to not be afraid to have the conversations that need to be had just because “this is an engineering classroom”.

This is the goal in teaching the New Professional. We need to not only allow space for emotions and creativity in our classrooms but support and encourage it. There shouldn’t be a set of steps that must be followed exactly in order to find the right answer. Students should be rewarded for creativity – for innovation – for working through that problem in a new way. This comes out in both the Parker Palmer article and the Innovation articles. The New Professional cannot deny or ignore their emotions if they want to make real change in the world and in order to teach our students innovation we must teach them that the knowledge we’re teaching them is not the end all be all. Both innovation and this desire to make a difference in the world are common reasons students list for being interested in engineering in the first place. And yet, as seen and discussed several times before, something happens between them being freshman and seniors that changes their outlook entirely.

I believe we are disconnecting them from why they enjoyed and were interested in engineering in the first place through our current education style. We are telling them that emotions have no place in science and engineering – even though it was those emotions that led them to us. We are teaching them that the numbers do not lie and that all that matters is the right answer – but never letting them explore what that number means, never showing them how to tell if its even reasonable in real time, or discussing that engineering is always changing and this might not even be the way of doing things when they get out of school. They leave us without practicing innovation and as divided husks of the idyllic person they once were.

I know this is a bit of an exaggeration and isn’t true of every person or every institution but it’s the current system. And as Palmer discussed, we cannot change the system until we realize that we are a part of it and have power over it.

I can change how engineering is taught. I can welcome and utilize emotions in my classroom. I can utilize mindfulness and teach my students how to as well. I can have those difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion in engineering, what it means to be an engineer, and who can be an engineer. I can help them think critically and not just be passive banks in their education, depositing knowledge. I can live an undivided life and bring ALL that I am into the classroom and teach my students to do the same. To utilize their strengths, no matter what they are, to help them be the best new professional engineers that they can be.

If I can lift you today,
You will look back
And grab the hands of a thousand more.

That is the way
The Great Spirit would have it!
-Howard Rainer, Native American Poet

Future Of High Education

I am so inspired by Parker Palmer’s article that I can’t agree more of his saying. Here I cited two parts that I was resonated the most.

…… Institutions are us. The shadows that institutions cast over our ethical lives are external expressions of our own inner shadows, individual and collective. If institutions are rigid, it is because we fear change. If institutions are competitive, it is because we value winning over all else. If institutions are heedless of human need, it is because something in us also is heedless.

…… The fact that we have schools does not mean we have education. The fact that we have hospitals does not mean we have health care. The fact that we have courts does not mean we have justice. We need professionals who are “in but not of their institutions, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the institutional diminishment of those values.

I’ve heard from many people complaining how terrible our education system is and how we should reform as like the Western system. I was ever one of them. However, more recently, I began to think about what ultimately went wrong in our education, why we still can’t figure out how to figure out.

I find myself very interesting. I always hold a self-justified standpoint of how education forces me to do this or that instead of wondering why I would have such a standpoint. For example, I tend to be quiet in class. If I had a question to ask, I would first consider whether this question made me stupid. Why would I have such a weird thinking? Because I did think in this way when other students asked a question that I could answer. Still, why would I have such a weird thinking? Because teachers tend to discourage students when they asked a question that they should be able to answer. Oh, no wonder why I don’t like to ask questions but like to pretend to know the answers.

For example, I tend to differentiate courses based on their importance in the exams. In fact, I had to learn all classes such as physics, chemistry, biology, history, politics, geography, Chinese, English, Mathematics in high school. I didn’t like them all but I had to work hard to learn them. Why would I need to learn them all? Because I need to get a high score for college application. Although I was required to learn all of them, I was acknowledged to focus more on science-oriented learning. Because at the end of the first year I chose to join the science-oriented curricula instead of liberal arts-oriented curricula. I only need to take a unified examination of the first-year learning of the liberal arts-oriented curricula, but I had to take the National College Entrance Exam (GaoKao) which including the all three-year learning of science-oriented curricula. The point here is that I didn’t treat every course equally and neither did I establish any personal interests in learning it. I guess I’ve had this habit since I was in primary school and middle school and it seemed that I still had it before now.

I still have so many examples. Three days and nights may not be enough to write all down. For example, I like to memorize the answers instead of questioning the questions. I prefer to take exam exercises instead of reading the books. … I was surprised that I had so many interesting things that I never have a deep look and thought. Have been used to mentally mute myself and think that it was the education that forced me to do in this way and all else were also forced to do in this way. I was surprised that how could I say that all of these were due to the terrible education system, as I was actually a part of the education system. I had actually been able to think something different and do something different. But I had just constrained by myself, not the education itself.

…… Institutions are us. The shadows that institutions cast over our ethical lives are external expressions of our own inner shadows, individual and collective. If institutions are rigid, it is because we fear change. If institutions are competitive, it is because we value winning over all else. If institutions are heedless of human need, it is because something in us also is heedless.

…… The fact that we have schools does not mean we have education. The fact that we have hospitals does not mean we have health care. The fact that we have courts does not mean we have justice. We need professionals who are “in but not of their institutions, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the institutional diminishment of those values.

I can’t stop but to second the quote here. I can’t excuse myself anymore. I can’t shirk responsibility anymore. Future education is us. Either high or low, it depends on us. Whether it is teachers or students, never stop reflecting ourselves. Don’t just wait for the teachers to provide us an alternative to seeing the world. Also, don’t just wait for the students to change the world. Education is a dialogue with teachers and students, with youngs and elders, with men and women, with new and old.

I always believe that everything has a reason. And there is a reason for a reason to be a reason. Try to push ourselves out of the comfort zone that has been established by the seniors or the formers. Try to figure out the reason. Try to defend the reason with critics as well as appraisals.

Parker Palmer, A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited, 2007.

Dan Edelstein, How is Innovation Taught? On the Humanities and the Knowledge Economy, 2010.

What is school for?

This seems to be a pretty simple question. School is obviously for educating people. But if you ask a further question – what kind of people school wants their students to be, it will become complicated. After reading the manifesto written by Seth Godin ( and his TEDx video – what is school for (, I learnt about the history of modern education and start to think more about this topic: what is school for?

As shown in Godin’s manifesto, the public education started at early 20th century. The aim for creating public school was to train the students to be qualified workers for factories. So the school requires the students to be obedient to the teachers and memorize the knowledge that was taught to him. This is determined by the production efficiency at that time. Obedient and hard-working workers are enough for the economy.

However, today’s economy of US has grown into a giant. Workers who can only do what they are told to do are hard to find jobs with high salary. As the profit of traditional manufacturing goes down, people who are able to create and design products become rich. Therefore, the society is starting to call for the transformation of school from teaching obedient students to teaching creative students. The students should become the center of the learning process. They should know why to learn, how to learn, and how they can make a difference by using what they learn in school.

To educate creative students is not as easy as to educate obedient ones. There are no longer right answers for the questions. The students have to explore and fail again and again to solve a real-world problem. But this is very useful in their future career when they face the complexity situations. Free and independent thinking should be encouraged by the teachers to let the students cognitive conception to the problem. That is why realizing the humanity of individual student is so important in the education today.

Some Valid Points by Seth Godin

I feel that Seth Godin made some valid points with his TED talk. However, I do not completely agree with everything that he said. Jay Anderson did a wonderful job summarizing some of the main points of Seth’s presentation in the comment section of the video. For this week, I am going to respond to the summarizing bullets.

  1. Homework by day, lectures by night.
    1. I think this is actually a great idea! The challenge with it is that everyone has a different learning style. Therefore, I think the students should have multiple access to different lectures. It does save on resources by allowing people who are very strong lecturers take care of the initial transfer of knowledge. The challenge with this is that students have to be held accountable for viewing the materials. I know for me personally I procrastinate on online courses or lectures.
  2. No memorization.
    1. I agree with this to a certain extent. I remember in the video he mentioned that everything should be open book and open notes. I have to say that the open resource method has really helped my grades. However, I do not retain information from the course that have open resource examination. In those courses, I would just label where things are in the notes and not really try to understand what is going on. I would just copy a bunch of examples into my notes, so that I could use it on the exam. I did not retain or remember much of anything in those courses.
  3. No predetermined course order.
    1. I do not agree with this because some course are needed in order for you to build the necessary foundation to be successful in the sequential course. This is particularly true in engineering. You cannot really do multivariable calculus if you have not master single variable calculus.
  4. Precise, focused education.
    1. I have mixed feelings about this. I feel like a part of the learning process is to explore new area where you have very little experience in. I am a believer that understanding multiple perspective will allow students to become a more successful citizen.
  5. Experience based.
    1. I have to agree with this. I tend to learn best when I have to apply a particular topic. In a sense, I have to have experiences with the topics that are covered in class. I find that professor that share their experiences in their lectures are the ones that I can relate to the best.
  6. Lifelong learning.
    1. I strongly agree with Seth on this one. I agree that a student has to continually want to learn in order to succeed. This all starts by coaching the students to be passionate about a particular area and encourage them to ask effective questions.
  7. No brand name colleges
    1. I have mixed feelings about this one also. I know in engineering, the top ranked schools have plenty of sponsors from the government and industry. These sponsorship allow the university to invest in meaningful labs, equipment, and projects for the students. By having sufficient funds the university can provide the students with hands on experiences in correlation to their course work. These hands on experiences will make a student much more competitive in the work force.

Destination Unknown?

One of the most interesting parts of this week’s readings happened to be the five points made by Parker J. Palmer on how to educate the new professional. These five points are:

“(1) We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us, as if they possessed powers that render us helpless – an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue.

(2) We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects.

(3) We must start taking seriously the “intelligence” in emotional intelligence.

(4) We must offer our students the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities required to cultivate communities of discernment and support.

(5) We must help our students understand what it means to live and work with the question of an undivided life always before them.”

While reflecting on these five points, I realized that not only is Palmer speaking about students gaining a sense of empathy but he is also communicating that students need the ability to deal with ethical issues in various disciplines. My discipline already promotes these ideas partly because my discipline is based in the humanities but also due to the fact that international relations theory has ethics imbedded in it already. I have taken this for granted over time and realized that I need to make sure my students are able to face ethical issues in the discipline. The best way I can do this is through the use of problem based learning in the classroom.

Dan Edelstein supports this idea in his article. “Classes in the humanities not only offer students the best opportunities to practice innovative thinking, but also provide them with models for how to do so.” Not just interdisciplinary studies but transdisciplinary studies is just one of the ways this can be accomplished at the larger university scale. Virginia Tech is attempting to model this through the creation of Destination Areas. Destination Areas provide faculty and students with new tools to identify and solve complex, 21st-century problems in which Virginia Tech already has significant strengths and can take a global leadership role. The initiative represents the next step in the evolution of the land-grant university to meet economic and societal needs of the world. The process will result in the creation of transdisciplinary teams, tools, and processes poised to tackle the world’s most pressing, critical problems.

The Welder and the Philosopher

“We need more welders and less philosophers.” – Marc Rubio

Why? Because, at least in Marc Rubio’s world, welders make more money than philosophers. Marc Rubio’s incredibly inaccurate statement sent shockwaves through the philosophical community, and this is significant because a philosopher’s feathers are not easily ruffled. Those who major in philosophy or, god forbid, pursue it as a career, are the accustomed recipients of the glassy-eyed, blank stares of slack-jawed friends and relatives who ask: “What can you do with a degree in philosophy?” This a question that any philosopher or person majoring in philosophy has fielded more times than they care to remember.

To be the object of derision in a presidential debate, however, raises the stakes. Luckily, the good folks at ETS (the Educational Testing Service, for all the welders in the audience) have simplified my explanation. If you turn your attention to the graph below, you can see that a degree in philosophy is THE BEST degree to have if you want to do well on the GRE.


Welder: Is doing well on the GRE important?

Philosopher: Well, it’s essential if you want to get into a good graduate program.

Welder: Is getting into a good graduate program important?

Philosopher: It is, if you want to have a rewarding career and excel in your chosen field.

Welder: Ah, I see. So studying philosophy, which is one of the humanities, is extremely important.

Philosopher: Yes. Yes, it is.



Teaching for the 21st Century

I could very much relate to Sonia Henry’s piece about medical students and empathy. I too experience a sort of loss of empathy at times with the work that I engage with as a graduate student. Given my field of study is Sociology (with specific attention paid towards race and health disparities) the type of readings I work through are theoretically interesting and engaging, yet empirically depressing because of the ongoing discrimination minority persons face in American society. I take a quantitative approach to my research which means that I tend towards dealing with a lot of datasets, regressions analysis and path models. Often times I find myself forgetting that the empirical “cases” i deal with are people’s lives. They are their experiences and their truth.  I wonder how we as researchers, in the social sciences specifically, can maintain a sense of empathy while doing the work that at times can normalize disenfranchisement. I wonder how we maintain a sense of passion and excitement without forgetting about the very real lives we are reporting on.

Final Thoughts in Connecting the Dots

We read a couple interesting articles this week that each carried their own impact. In “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited”  by Parker Palmer, the author talks about how current individuals of institutions give said institutions more power than they should. Additionally, the author describes a few “must haves” when it comes to developing the “new professionals”. The second one talks about taking students’ emotions as seriously as their intellects. Palmer then cites the example of the surgical resident being referenced throughout the article mentioning that her feeling overwhelmed at work in the institution pushed her to shut down and shut up. In response to both points I mentioned about power and emotions, I must say that I see this EVERYWHERE. It is like a poison seeping into the veins of all the nascent graduate student from any and all departments.

I love this push back towards allowing values and honor to have a stand in our role as the “new professional”. I have seen an astounding lack of values and honor in some of the classes friends or I have either taken. I think there is a level of value and honor that comes with taking on the responsibility of being a teacher at any level. We all have some connection with the rest of the people in our little world. What we say, how we teach, who we push, will have more of a rippling impact than we can truly comprehend.

In Dan Edelstein’s “How Is Innovation Taught? On the Humanities and the Knowledge Economy“, the author discusses the power of humanities education and using it to teach innovation. He is preaching to the choir with his rationale. I thoroughly believe in the idea of a well-rounded student. I would be arguing for the other side too if needed. This will sound cheesy, but is a tree not stronger with roots that are thicker and numerous?

I would very much like to become the “new professional” discussed in Palmer’s article. I have a lot to learn and do to become what he describes, but I see that as an opportunity for growth, not as a hurdle.

Do medical students really lose their empathy?

In my opinion, this was the most interesting read for me this week. My father is a doctor, I have a couple of best friends who are doctors now, and I guess I’ve been to a doctor…or…whatever.

My friend, Sanjay, grew up with me from pre-school. We endured our middle school years together and attended a prom or two as dates. I say this without an ounce of reservation: Sanjay is a truly empathetic and selfless person. He’s also freaking brilliant. In fact, it was pretty much assumed that he would graduate from Duke and move on to medical school, but he wanted to work for a non-profit to help people sign up for healthcare in limited access Appalachian regions for a couple years before reluctantly accepting a spot in Harvard Medical School’s class of 2020(?). Anyways, I forced him to talk to me on the phone. He’s doing rotations right now.

Sanjay read the article entitled “When do medical students lose their empathy” before we spoke, giving him enough time to formulate his thoughts on the topic. “I don’t want it to be true, but I think it is.” Sanjay went on to detail his exhaustion, the competitive environment, the torturous hours, the weight loss, the pressure. Oh, the pressure.

Sonia Henry said: “Fear of exams, of angry surgeons, of night shifts, and of looking stupid is one thing. But fear to engage with a patient, to feel their pain and offer them your comfort — that is something else entirely. For all the medical procedures and lab tests and suture ties I cannot perform as a student, comfort is something that takes no study at all and can be given freely, with almost guaranteed good results.”

Not necessarily so different from the academic environment we subject undergraduates to, in a way, just at a higher caliber. I asked him what he thought he’d do to try and counteract the loss of empathy. “Honestly, it’s not exactly something I can be concerned about right now. I’ve got to get my stuff done. This what they want, this is why they accepted me.” A far cry from the voice calling me lost on an Appalachian back road trying to find the clinic to help patients get the care they needed. “I won’t always be like this, Sarah. I just need some time to breathe.” Maybe we all could use some breathing time.

Farewell Contemporary Pedagogy peeps! Twas a most excellent experience with my fellow GEDI’s by my side. Though I still have a long way to go, some of the important things I have taken away from this experience are:

  1. Start with a plan
  2. Be willing to desert the plan you started with
  3. Be open to digital learning-embrace the changes
  4. Have a philosophy, but make sure that it is fluid
  5. Never be too set in your ways to change the way you teach young people
  6. Reflect, reflect, reflect




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