“Make Something Interesting”

This is the challenge we each face as future faculty. I truly appreciated Seth Godin’s manifesto and hope that I can meet his challenge. In the field of public administration, I am often surrounded by others who want to measure the value of work on the cost-benefit basis. I think there is far more to governing people than just a cost-benefit. Fortunately, I subscribe to a worldview that allows me to accept other ways of being and thinking. So the notion of leading a class or seminar through an exploration of ideas that allows them to connect the dots is thrilling. I wrote earlier in the semester that I wished there was a place to practice some of the teaching methods we are discussing. Now, I realize that is neither necessary nor sufficient to inspire learning. Being present in the moment and guiding the exploratory process of learning is really the key to inspiring learning. “Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is priceless” Many have identified the challenge with this approach is getting it through the gate-keepers of the institutions at which we might teach. I agree, it is daunting to think about taking a “radical” approach to education. But it is more important to comply for the sake of a tenure position or to inspire learning. As Palmer argues we are the institution. If we don’t speak up and spark the interest and intelligence of our students, then nothing will ever change. That to me is a sad state of affairs.

Contemporary Pedagogy Vs. Bureaucracy !!

At the end of the course and in my last post I would really like to thank Dr. Nelson, the TA team, and all of my classmates for this great opportunity to learn new ways of pedagogy that will pave the road for us as future professors. Now to a shocking question, can we really apply these methods and techniques (i.e. PBL) in our classroom? In other words, will we be allowed to do so? I don’t want to be pessimistic, but the answer is in some places this can be very hard. Some universities in some countries are fully controlled by the government to the extent that the professor may not be free in choosing his way of teaching. For example in Egypt, most of the universities are public and controlled by the ministry of higher education. Each department’s curriculum is created by some of the professors working in the department through the department council. However, before starting the new curriculum, it should be reviewed and approved by the ministry of higher education through an entity called the supreme universities council. This process involves a lot of bureaucracy and it may take a year or more for a curriculum to get approved. Once approved, any minor change in the curriculum (i.e. Adding or removing a topic) should be reviewed and approved by the supreme universities council before being effective. The curriculum should define the list of courses required or optional for a specific degree, the list of topics within each course, the grading policy, the textbook, and any other relevant information to the course. Some of these requirements are obligatory (i.e.  exams and grading policy), and others are just recommendations (i.e. textbooks). For example if it is stated in the curriculum that there is a midterm or final for a course, then the professor is required to offer the midterm or the final and there is no choice for him. For me, I really hate exams and I don’t want to offer exams in my classes and I would like to rely on project assessment. But, it will be a violation by law if I didn’t provide the final!!! The good news is that there are some professors that can devise some workarounds to all these restrictions. I remember in one of my master classes in Cairo university in Egypt, the professor (a PhD holder from Maryland college park) decided not to give any exam and he just relied on submitting a report at the end of the semester. But according to the Computer Science Curriculum in Cairo University, there must be a final for this course. Accordingly, he told us to come at the time of the exam and just staple our reports to an empty exam paper!!!!! What an idea!!!! I really liked this, and I will never forget this professor. I really learned from him that a professor can be creative and do whatever he wants in his class despite any restriction or bureaucracy. But this adds some burden on the professor as now he is required to devise creative ways of teaching and devise their corresponding bureaucracy workarounds. Otherwise, he should then spend all his time in his career writing and submitting curricular changes to the supreme universities council!!

Emotional Engineering

(Apologies for the late post)

Going through the readings and the TEDx talk for this week, I was struck particularly by both Palmer’s and Edelstein’s writings. Emotions, as Parker said, are so often overlooked and downplayed throughout American society and especially in Professional Environments. Nowhere have I seen this to be more true than in Engineering and metal casting. One, it’s a field dominated by men, who are often wrapped up in toxic masculinity which devalues and suppresses healthy emotional expression. Two, since it’s so based in Math and Science, which are typically thought of as cold and objective, emotions are heavily eschewed. Edelstein discussed the importance of humanities, with which, as an engineer, I couldn’t agree more. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard from fellow engineers “I’m an engineer, I don’t have to be able to write” or how stupid they think poetry or literature are. Hearing that infuriates me.

I think the TEDx talk was a great way to wrap up what we’ve been talking about all semester, of rethinking how the education system is supposed to work and what it can achieve. As in our earlier discussions, there are always The Big Questions that this brings up: how can we effect this change? How do we know it works?

The secret dot

So, we are at the end of the semester.  We have discussed many topics related to contemporary pedagogy. We have seen new methods, out-of-the-box ideas in education, and different point of views for some issues.

The question you should ask yourself is, “With all these different ways for every aspect, how can I come up with a good strategy to adopt?”, putting in simpler words “Which dots I have to connect?”. If you have just dots without a plan you will end up having something like this.


A punch of beautiful strategies (unnumbered dots) that you don’t know which ones to use and the outcome of connecting those ones.

You need to have something solid to build on. Let me tell you the secret dot that if you started from, you will be able to achieve what you want. The secret dot is the center point that if you started from, you will find your way.


The center point is like the secret ingredient of the secret-ingredient soup.

Which is nothing BUT you. You need to believe in what you do. If you are going to be a professor or a teacher, you need first to believe in the message you want to deliver. Starting from this, you can then pick what you feel suitable for your personality and your audience. You may try something that does not work well, so you will pick another dot (another strategy) and try it. As long as you have enthusiasm to do what you do, your audience will get what you want.

Not everyone was bore talented in teaching, so don’t worry about that. But people who seeks to be good teachers will be. Getting feedback from students is very helpful. I know a professor at Virginia Tech  who gives students extra credit for competing an evaluation survey at the end of the semester. This is his own designed survey as he wants always to be better at the classroom. He wants to ensure that everyone gets what he illustrates.

Connecting the Dots

This semester has really been an eye opening one for me. To be completely honest, one of the main drivers in taking some of these GRAD courses has been to give me a competitive edge when applying for jobs.  However, I have really learned a lot in this course especially about myself and my own assumptions about teaching and pedagogical practice.  I find myself sort of straddling a line when it comes to my thoughts and opinions on the future of teaching and my own personal teaching philosophy.  One of the things I am most proud of is that even before taking these courses, I have always found myself questioning how I could improve (in my case) veterinary medical education.  As discussed in the readings for this week by Palmer and others, I see so many students only concerned about the grade, lacking empathy, and forgetting that there are real lives and real patients on the other end of all this.  However, I also find parts of me still deeply rooted in many traditional ways of thinking.  Even though I can see the shortcomings, I still feel that many of the traditional ways of teaching the –ologies (physiology, neurology, nephrology, etc.) by just rote memorization of facts may still be a necessary part of the curriculum.  Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has ALL the right answers and it is going to take some pushing and pulling from both sides (traditional and contemporary) to work together to find better alternatives.

The bright side of hating your passion




“I hate science.”

I hear this a lot in the hallway.  It’s sort of the default way of saying some experiment or endeavor backfired without getting into details.  I’ve said it enough times too.

Wednesday after our weekly class meeting I am going to watch the second of the two PhD Movies that came out recently (eight thirty in the GLC!).  I paid the $5 on the internet to watch the first with friends.  We had a great time.  There was something almost therapeutic about laughing, realizing you weren’t laughing alone, and hearing friends say “oh so true.”  But I just kept picturing someone who was not in grad school watching us watch the movie.  If I had watched this as an undergrad I would not have skipped a beat.  If I had watched graduate students watch this as an undergrad I might have got a little worried.  It really shouldn’t be that funny.

But I don’t hate science.  Not by a long shot.  That’s really not what we are trying to say.  We wouldn’t say that if we didn’t care so badly.   Having had my fair share (I think we’d all like to say more than that) of frustrating outcomes in the lab, is probably the single most influential experience on my recent thinking about teaching.  Is this what Parker J. Palmer meant when he described “mining” emotions for insights into an institution and a need for change?  I’ve been really grateful for the conversations in this class and the way they have given me resources to use this “insight.”

We have to ask “why my specific branch of science?”  Or come to terms with the idea that our job may be entirely dependent on the existence of a government agency that exists to give out money.  I’ve never been more aware of statistics that say we don’t need more STEM students for the jobs that exist now.  I’ve also never been more convinced of the importance of the role of the teacher-facilitator in science.  We’ve been challenged by Seth Godin to ask “what is school for?”  I don’t agree with everything Seth Goodin said – let’s be honest, sometimes of love the sense of self efficacy that comes with a good textbook.  But I think this question is critical and I think part of the answer for the educator is being able to shift that question to students.  To have students think critically not just about what is education for, but also what is this subject matter for?  To open it up both to criticism and innovation.

Coaching for the new professional

Palmer in his article put forward some “immodest proposals” for the new professional. In the article, the author defined new professional as someone who can say, “In the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values of my work, I have found firm ground on which to stand—the ground of personal and professional identity and integrity—and from which I can call myself, my colleagues, and my profession back to our true mission.”

But, given the realities of life, these goal is difficult to achieve for most people. Life happens – priorities shift, opportunity costs seem huge at times, so on and so forth and we slowly give up to the system. In fact, institution is the emergent phenomena where each individual’s behaviors, actions, and relations create that phenomena. So, to ask professionals to take a stance which may not align to the institutions’s flow, if not be against it, would be asking a lot from professionals.

These are lofty dreams without any concrete steps to achieve it. I happen to be an engineer – divide-and-conquer, prototype-and-iterate, agile-and-scrum, etc. earn my daily breads – and was bothered by the missing action plan (or any sort of goal-achieving timeline). And then I came across Atul Gawande’s article emphasizing the need for professionals to have coaches (he got one!). Coaches, as individuals who can observe, judge, and guide professionals towards a goal, could help in achieving Palmer’s proposals.

Individuals may deviate under pressure and may need some support. Coaches who are neutral to the institution and the professional would come in and “share” the pressure. They would nudge, suggest, and provide support to the professionals to be stronger. They may even teach the things that Palmer proposes right at the moment when the teaching seems necessary. For example, although I know that emotional intelligence is important, I would highly appreciate if  someone who understands my profession, supports the emotional feeling that I may have at work. If I get the support right at the moment of need, then it would mean far more to me than being taught beforehand.

Do you feel that you could use a coach in your line of work? Do you feel you could adhere to Palmer’s principles more  easily if you had a coach?

The post Coaching for the new professional appeared first on Aakash.

When engineers take philosophy

My undergraduate institution (Notre Dame) has a lot of liberal arts requirements for all its students. As a school that is largely non-STEM, they firmly believe (and I agree) that the students should leave not just trained for the job they want, but as truly educated, well-rounded people.  And that is how I ended up taking “The Philosophy of Science Fiction.”  Almost ten years after college, I reference that course more than any other I took in college (including, sadly, my engineering courses).

We watched movies, including The Matrix, Dark City, and Twelve Monkeys (and an episode of Futurama). We read short stories by authors like Heinlein and Asimov and academic papers by Turing, among others.  We discussed the nature of consciousness and the soul, the possibility of free will, the concept of time.  These were the same fundamental questions that were discussed in my (much-hated) philosophy seminar, but now in the context of science fiction.  Instead of saying, “What is a soul?,” we said, “What if you swap two people’s brains?  Do their souls go with them?” or “Could robots have souls?”  Instead of saying, “What is time?,” we said, “What are the differences between the Back to the Future version of time travel and the Futurama version?  What about Twelve Monkeys?  Terminator?”

The class was fascinating, and it taught me some valuable lessons that have carried over to many different parts of my life, including engineering. For one, question everything.  Nothing is certain.  Time may not move in a straight line.  Robots may have souls someday.  The process your client just described to you that he wants you to simulate may not actually work like that.  Nothing is certain.  Also, it’s ok to not think in a straight line (that’s from my roommate, who edited my papers and got tired of reading “essays in a lab report format.”)  Sometimes things go in circles and you have to keep revisiting the work you thought was done.  Sometimes you get stuck in a time loop.  It happens, and that’s ok.  Finally, I learned that it’s much more fun to watch The Matrix than to read Plato.

“Mining my Emotions”

My perseverance to become a “new professional” is guided by my intimate connection with my field of study. The Shreckhise’s have been in the nursery and landscaping industry for over 100 years now. While I had the option of continuing the family tradition and working for the family business after graduating my B.S. in Horticulture, I chose to pursue academia. Why? The nursery industry is facing some of the same problems they encountered 50 years ago. If I really wanted to influence this industry for which I am so passionate, I couldn’t be selling trees and trimming shrubs all day. I realized this after getting a taste of research as an undergraduate. We were trying to use urea—an inexpensive nitrogen fertilizer—for production of containerized nursery crops. It didn’t take long to realize that my research could potentially improve the profitability of nursery crop sales, thus benefiting the family business.

Parker Palmer asserts that as “new professionals” we should know how to “mine [our] emotions for knowledge.” While it may seem silly, I sometimes think back to my days working at the nursery and try to recall some of the most inefficient, back-breaking tasks I was ever assigned, and use these memories as research inspiration. In applied nursery crop research, our job is to make nurseries more profitable and more efficient. This is one possible way (while very literal) I can “mine my emotions for knowledge.”

It’s a mac and cheese kind of day

I was talking to my mom about grad school and all the work I had left to do today. And she said: “Sometimes it’s a cordon bleu kind of day, and sometimes it’s a mac and cheese kind of day.” In other words, sometimes you can accomplish amazing things, and sometimes you just have to do small things. Today is a mac and cheese kind of day. But who knows, maybe tomorrow there will be cordon bleu.

I switched fields two years ago for a number of reasons. I have always been drawn towards teaching and mentoring. I think everyone should have access to good education. I don’t think education should be limited to those who can afford to pay for it, and I really don’t like the phrase: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

So I found myself switching from engineering to engineering education. And I love it. I learned about several learning theories, reflected on my own educational experience, and tried out new ideas in my classroom. I don’t need to change the world. I am happy if I can make things better for a few people, if I can inspire a few people.

What I would love to do is help change the culture of engineering education and the culture of higher education more broadly.

But I am just one person from a small town in Colorado. As I read Parker Palmer’s  A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited, I found myself thinking “well what could that one person have done?” Palmer described a case study from the medical field where a patient dies unexpectedly after an uneventful liver transplant. An overworked resident with very little experience as a resident was on staff at the time. My thought process as I read this case study was: What could the resident do? They were being forced to work long hours (that is what residents have to do, after all). And so on.

But then Palmer when on to say the resident in this case study could help change the institution instead of merely operating within the institution. At this point, my mind started to go off in a million different directions. Palmer then says:

The hidden curriculum of our culture portrays institutions as powers other than us, over which we have marginal control at best—powers that will harm us if we cross them. But while we may find ourselves marginalized or dismissed for calling institutions to account, they are neither other than us nor alien to us: institutions are us.

Institutions are us. Institutions are social constructions (I even talked about this in my constructivism class but it hadn’t really sunk in yet I guess). Institutions can change. But they first need to be questioned.

A lot of engineering and engineering education is about questioning and changing things and making things better. As I mentioned earlier, I am perfectly content making small changes and small improvements. But what if small improvements could lead to big changes? What if I (and other educators) could help change the culture of engineering?

Who’s with me! Cordon bleu anyone?

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