Did Engineers Even Have Empathy in the First Place?

Reading Dr. Henry’s article this week about medical students losing their empathy struck a chord with me. I vividly remember the night last semester during the small group I lead with my church when one of the medical students spoke up with a prayer request. He was on his ob-gyn rotation and had just that day had to tell a family that their baby no longer had a heartbeat. As he broke down, he told us that he didn’t want to lose this empathy – the sense of why he was doing what he was doing and the purpose behind it.

When I think about engineering, I try to think about it in the same way. Engineering is a profoundly human profession, even though our engineering curricula may not reflect it. Everything we do — the time spent our research work, the projects we bid for, the designs we produce — has a purpose. However, often when you ask students why they want to be engineers, you hear “because I’m good at science and math” or “because I want to make a lot of money”. This effect is compounded during undergraduate education, where courses that incorporate the humanities like engineering ethics often aren’t required classes for students. I know when I was doing my BS, the closest we got to a discussion of ethics was talking about professional engineering licensure and the danger of putting your Professional Engineer (PE) stamp on a drawing that you hadn’t checked (not even because someone might die but because you might lose your license)! I’m having a hard time remembering and discussion of how the application of design principles might affect communities or how to make a hard cost-benefit decision when one comes up.

Palmer’s essay was especially meaningful to me, especially having taken Engineering Ethics and the Public last semester (Fall 2018). As I think about that class and compare it to Palmer’s essay I can’t help but think about the example of the resident that couldn’t listen to all of her patients and caused one of them to die. I was reminded of our discussions in Engineering Ethics of the importance of engineers valuing non-scientific experiences (like that of citizens in Flint, Michigan who knew something was wrong with their water but didn’t know how to prove it) and remembering the people for whom you are working instead of a nameless and faceless entity. This class also really encouraged a deep reflection of recognizing our responsibility for our work and grappling with the idea that “knowing is not enough”. In our class, we had to write a “story of self” where we examined our own lives and values and the point at which we are willing to confront inhumanities instead of staying silent.

I believe that as we prepare the engineers of the future, we as educators must, as Palmer said, “insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.” We need to confront students with ethical dilemmas and encourage them to think now about how they will react, instead of throwing students into dilemmas without preparation and hoping they don’t feel “overwhelmed” enough to do the right thing. Engineers need a sense of empathy – to remember that we are serving in a helping profession. We need to learn how to listen and how to respond, not just how to design the most effective piece of technology. To accomplish this, we need some humility — we need to value the input of those in other fields who are practicing this better than we are. It’s only through empathy, listening, and humility that we’ll be able to train engineers for the new profession, not just the old one.

What is Critical Pedagogy?

Critical Pedagogy is provoking thought by engaging with each other, which promotes a collaborative and problem-solving learning environment and encourages a critical reflection of one’s own learning experience.

Group 3, engaging in critical pedagogy in class this week (thank you Dr. Ewing for the photo!)

To our group, critical pedagogy means:

  • Learning is based in the learners’ own being — how they interact with the world, their thinking, and their belief of what they will become. The teacher is a political tool, and the process of learning is related to individual empowerment and social change. [Khaled]
  • Researching and understanding a student’s background and using that information to enhance their learning. When teaching, we must take into consideration the complex ways individual minds process information so we may break past the archaic limitations of the current education system. [Mike]
  • Moving from “narration” to “collaboration”, where knowledge is allowed to be a process of inquiry instead of a transfer of information. Through dialogue, teachers and students become “teacher-students” and “student-teachers”. [Meredith]
  • Having critical reflection, which is the relationship between theory and practice.  Otherwise theory becomes simply “blah blah blah” and practice, pure activism. Teaching is not the transfer of knowledge, but creating the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge. [Nayara]
  • Learning is a pleasurable activity, which teaches people not only how to read the word but also read the world. It is intuitive for children, but is suppressed through the high school and undergraduate experiences. Once these people take the next step, they are taught critical thinking (thinking outside the box) again — essentially deeming critical pedagogy as a learned behavior. [Vibhav]
  • Creating a positive environment begins with the teacher engaging with students beyond a surface level which builds a community in your class. [Deb]

How does this apply to our specific fields and educational settings?

  • Encouraging critical reflection of student’s learning experience and how he/she could apply that in the lifestyle. [Khaled]
  • In order to teach students using complex critical pedagogy, we as educators must provide the information in a context that is relatable and digestible to each student.  In addition, we have to give students the necessary time and resources to grasp concepts. Many students learn at different paces; by allowing students to grasp the concepts at their own speed, they are more confident and even inspired to learn more about the subject.   [Mike]
  • We invite students to be problem-solvers — co-investigators in the creative process. To do this, we must pose problems instead of solely conveying information. Encouraging creativity in our engineering classes by asking students to engage with design problems allows them to critically approach the question and apply their own experiences in order to solve the problem. [Meredith]
  • Creating an environment in which students can have the knowledge presented to them, then knowledge  is shaped through understanding, discussion and reflection. This means students should understand basic concepts and then be able to shape them into practical applications. For example, when teaching “Lean principles” to industrial engineering students, a hands-on project could make students to critically think about concepts and connections between what they have read and what is happening in the real job environment. A critical perspective can not truly be developed in a mechanical memorization or the rhythmic repetition of phrases and ideas. A creative challenge is needed in the classrooms! [Nayara]

  • Creating cutting edge and creative technology to enable differently-abled people to interact with the world in a “normal” way.  [Vibhav]
  • Allowing students to engage with the material and each other in a way that interests them most at some point in the semester. [Deb]

For more of our thoughts, check out our blogs:

You Can’t Always “Marie Kondo” Your Education

When I was a junior in civil engineering, I decided to take Reinforced Concrete Design. When we got to class the first day, I checked the part of the syllabus that tells you how your final grade will be calculated and saw:

  • Midterm: 45%
  • Final Exam: 65%

At this point in my college career, it had been at least a year since I took my last structural-related class, so I’m a little rusty. When we got to the midterm, I opened it up and there was one question: “determine the live load that can be carried by the shed in the structure shown below.” This one question encompassed everything we’d learned so far: structural analysis for concrete slabs, beams, and columns. Looking around the classroom as people opened the test and then checked the back of the page to see if there were any more questions, I saw a lot of these faces:

While our midterm did have a numerical grade, we had to go by our professor’s office to pick it up. There, he would walk through the exam with us and show us where we went wrong and how to improve. While I appreciate his taking the time to discuss how to move forward between the midterm and the final, I really can’t decide how I feel about this method of simply having fewer assessments that contributed to our final grade. I’m thinking specifically of students who can work hard and understand the material but experience major test anxiety. Most students with whom I’ve talked, even those without test anxiety, prefer when their course grade is more weighted toward homework and projects that can be completed outside of class and on their own time. These kinds of assignments allow students to work outside of class, to try and fail at different solutions and learn through the process.

I fully believe there are wiser ways than that to incorporate assessment into our classrooms.

In the engineering field, the accreditation board (ABET) requires that each class have a set of learning objectives that must be met for a student to demonstrate sufficient knowledge to advance to the next level. Each field has a body of knowledge that outlines the information needed to solve problems related to that field. Developing a core competency the foundations of civil engineering (for example, knowing how to use statics to determine whether a bridge is structurally stable or understanding how to design a disinfection system for a water treatment plant) is critical to the pubic health and safety and therefore, engineers must be assessed based on a set of standards. Engineering students cannot just choose what they learn or get rid of a key topic because it doesn’t spark joy for them.

The idea Kohl proposed of removing assessments and sitting down with students and discussing what grade they thought they’d deserved is like saying “I want to lose weight but I’m not going to weigh myself.” Assessments are necessary and should be written to ascertain whether students can meet the objectives of a course.

How can we create assessments that are meaningful? In their book Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, Felder and Brent remind educators that teaching is not a mystery religion, we should tell students what we expect and then assess them based on those expectations. Here’s a few thoughts about developing assessments that matter:

  1. Write learning objectives before the course begins. Teach the things that are in line with the learning objectives.
  2. These objectives may not be intrinsically inspiring to students (they may not “spark joy”), but we can incorporate examples of how these concepts are applied by professionals practicing in our field to show students that there is purpose to what they’re learning.
  3. When writing an assessment, look at the learning objectives you’ve written. Are your questions rooted in those objectives? (If not, rewrite your question.)
  4. Provide the learning objectives to your students before the exam as a study guide. As they prepare for the test, they’ll know what you expect them to understand.

How do you anti-teach anti-learners?

This week, our reading discussed embracing change and allowing students to learn through play and imagination.  The whole theory of anti-teaching seems to center around inspiring students to ask good questions instead of conveying useful information. It seems, though, that our education system has produced students who ask only the worst question: “do we need to know this for the test?”

How do we engage students who have been trained in this way? It seems like some students are happy to go through life and education like this fish from Spongebob:

How do we teach students who are so entrenched in this mindset that they don’t want to embrace change? This is especially relevant in many of the general education courses that are required for students. Many students come to class and are uninterested in the subject at hand; they’re more interested in getting in, passing the test, doing a core dump of the information, and then getting out and moving onto the next semester. They’re anti-learners.

I was struck by this quote from the reading:

Historically, the pattern has been that as children grow up and become more proficient at making sense of the environment in which they live, their world seems to become more stable. Thus, as a child grows and becomes accustomed to the world, the perceived need for play diminishes.

When we’re in the classroom, our role is not just to convey information, it’s to introduce students to a new environment and allow them to ask thoughtful questions which in turn guide our teaching. The problem lies in anti-learners who have lost the desire to ask questions and just want to receive the information and then give it back to you in the form of an essay/short answer/fill-in-the-blank. We can talk all day about changing the culture as a whole, but when it comes down to it, we’ll have the students that we get and those students will have already been shaped by their educational experiences. They will likely have an expectation that our class will be similar to most of the classes they’ve taken – their ability to memorize but not understand, they think, will get them through. When we require more of them, some may grow and learn, but some won’t want to rise to the challenge.

I’m reminded of a history class I took my freshman year of college. HI 210 – History of Modern Europe. When we went to class on the first day, the professor handed out the syllabi and told our class “This won’t be like a normal class. There are no tests… no quizzes… all I expect is for you to interact with the readings, write an essay each week on what you found, and come to class prepared to discuss with other students.” When I went back for the second class, half the class had dropped.

How do we respond? How do we engage the unengaged, the students who are happy in their stable environment who don’t want to change? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

It’s in the Syllabus… or is it?

Hello everyone! My name is Meredith Bullard and I’m excited to dialogue with you this semester! I’m a second year PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering. My research focus is at the intersect of the environment and water resources; I study groundwater dynamics and transport modeling! Having a mother who is also a university professor (in chemical engineering at NC State) has not only had an impact on my life view and career goals, but also on my views of pedagogy. Although I’ve never had to take any of the classes she teaches, I grew up hearing about active learning, academic integrity, and the importance of good advising. I’m excited to share my views and some stories with you all, and I’m sure that this class will be a great opportunity for me to integrate new ideas from such a diverse group of backgrounds into my own experience.

I enjoyed our long discussion Wednesday evening about privacy and whether learning management systems should be able to collect and share our data. I was sharing some pieces and parts of our discussion with my boyfriend, who has a degree in computer science from VT. He now works as a web developer and is definitely much more knowledgeable than me in this area. He said that most websites track user data (clicks, time spent on pages, etc.) without our consent — this isn’t just something that’s limited to Canvas. While that does seem to me like a violation of privacy, he pointed out that most of this data is hard to interpret. At his company, they often use heat maps developed from usability tests to show what people are interacting with most and how people navigate through a website. Much of this data would be used for site improvement, which would ultimately benefit users, but it mostly remains anonymous since you’re just looking for overall user trends.

When I mentioned our discussion to my mom, she said that she had to put a paragraph about TurnItIn in the syllabus, since it was used in a course she teaches:

In this course we will utilize www.turnitin.com , an automated system which instructors can use to quickly and easily compare each student’s assignment with billions of web sites, as well as an enormous database of student papers that grows with each submission. After the assignment is processed, the instructor receives a report from turnitin.com that states if and how another author’s work was used in the assignment. For a more detailed look at this process, visit http://www.turnitin.com. Plagiarism in written documents is unacceptable and will be cited for academic integrity violation.

When it comes to data, I usually assume that any data I produce will somehow be sold or used. I’m fine with that, although it would be nice if it were aggregated with other data and not attached to my name. I would like more transparency with what data I’m producing and how it’s used. With regard to Canvas and in the interest of transparency across the board, should we:

  1. have a right to know who can access (or is accessing) the user data from Canvas and how that data is used in decision making?
  2. be required to add something to our syllabi so that our students know that their learning management site collects data about them (even though there’s not a way for them to opt out)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!