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?

Dear current and future creator, builder, developer, dreamer, problem solver, world changer

Before I begin, there are a few things that you should know about me. I am quiet, goofy, kind, caring, shy, outgoing, creative, and bubbly. And I am an engineer.

I have a BS in Mechanical Engineering and I am currently working on an MEng in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in Engineering Education. I want to improve the way engineering is taught and help to change the “chilly climate” that is synonymous with engineering. Engineering is not always a welcome setting for women and minorities. But how do we change this?

I came across this TEDx talk by Debbie Sterling on inspiring the next generation of female engineers. She talks about getting girls excited about engineering and changing the narrative for young girls. And she is working to accomplish this through the creation of GoldieBlox, toys that introduce girls to engineering at a young age, to change the narrative of what girls can be and what they can do.

In Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele talks about giving people “information that enables a more accurate and hopeful personal narrative about their setting” (Whistling Vivaldi, p. 169). So maybe we can give young girls a narrative about engineers that is broader than “train conductor” or “antisocial nerd” (because, let’s face it, I am neither of those things and engineering is much broader than that).

And that got me thinking. Can letters by engineers to future engineers help change the stereotypical narrative of what an engineer is?

Below is my letter. What would your letter say?

Dear current and future creator, builder, developer, dreamer, problem solver, world changer:

My name is Amy and I love learning about the world around me. I love exploring and seeing new things. I love creating new things and making things better. I love hearing other people’s stories and learning about other areas and cultures and perspectives. And this is why I love engineering.

I always thought that engineering was just about math and science. I thought engineers sat alone in a dark, dingy rooms starting at computer screens. But engineers get to do really cool things. Engineers get to help find cures for cancer, help explore outer space, help people learn, help improve the way we live, and so much more! Engineers use math and science to solve problems and find creative solutions to those problems. And engineers work with people to do this. Engineers are creators, builders, developers, dreamers, problem solvers, and world changers. Just like you!

Engineering is really fun and amazing, and it is also really challenging. But that is because engineers are constantly learning about new things and trying to see problems from a new perspective. But one cool thing about people is that we are always learning and growing. We don’t stop learning when we are done with school. We all constantly learn about the world around us, and engineers get to do this every day!

So I encourage you — creators, builders, developers, dreamers, problem solvers, and world changers — consider engineering as a way to realize dreams, learn about the things around you, and change the world. We need you!



Remembering my Teaching Future

My first experience teaching was about a year and a half ago. I started a new PhD program and started teaching at the same time. I was teaching the first year engineering course at Virginia Tech, and I was terrified. I thought I had to know everything.

I was worried about talking for an hour and 15 minutes. I was worried about knowing the answers to every question. I was worried about being able to manage the classroom.

But looking back on that first semester that I taught, I learned a lot about my teaching style and approach. While teaching that first semester, I also took a Practicum in Engineering Classroom course where we journaled about our teaching experiences. I just went back through those journal entries and came across several that I think describe my teaching style.

Journal Entry for Dec. 5: I noticed something cool in class today.  One of the groups was really struggling to get the robot for the experiment connected.  I was trying to help them and help other groups as well.  So I would have the group that was struggling try something and while they were working on downloading the programs or the right software or whatever we were trying, I would help other groups.  I noticed that a member of another group, who is very good at programming, went and was helping this group of students that was struggling to get the robot connected.  I thought it was really cool to see the students start to help each other more and work together.

I hope to encourage students to take ownership of their learning, and I hope to encourage students to work together as they learn. As a teacher, I don’t want to be the one telling students how things should be done. I want students to explore and ask questions and be engaged.

Journal Entry for Oct. 3: In the provided lecture notes, the majority of the lesson was a discussion on what makes a good question.  I don’t feel like my students learn very well with just a discussion such as this, so I am going to incorporate an activity.  I am introducing several levels of questions and then will ask students to write 2 questions relating to the categories.  This will get them thinking about their project and what they want to know.  So this is initiating the questioning portion of the project.  After students write their questions, I will lead the discussion on what makes a good question, having students reflect on the questions that they just wrote.  This way, the topics are less abstract and students can take questions and try to figure out how to improve them to gain more information.

Topics should be relevant for students, especially in first year engineering courses.  I want to help students connect information in the class to other material in the class or to other things in their life. I try to incorporate activities and discussions so I am not just lecturing the entire time.

Journal Entry for Nov. 21: I had worked with a student some during class.  She really was struggling with MATLAB and was trying really hard to understand what was going on.  I got an email from her over break stating that she had figured out the first problem of the homework but had a few questions about the second problem.  I could tell that she really wanted to understand what was wrong with her code and how to fix it.  So I sent a long response back to this student and tried to answer all of her questions without just telling her the “right” way to do things.  The next day I got the most exciting email from her: “Wow-the feeling that comes over you when you understand MATLAB! Thank you so much!” I was so excited to hear this from my student because I knew that this was a huge accomplishment for her and she had really made a lot of progress.  I was really excited for her and that I could help her reach this point.

I want to help my students and not just give them the right answer. I hope to listen to the challenges my students are facing and guide them to a solution or conclusion in a way that makes sense for them. Everyone sees problems differently. I try to listen to my students and understand their thought processes, ask questions to guide them, and work with them to figure out problems.

Overall, I want to be approachable, engage students in the learning process, incorporate activities and discussions to help students connect information, and work with students as we navigate different topics, ideas, and beliefs.

Don’t judge me, Grades!

I have a confession. I am very competitive. I want to be the best at everything I do. And in school, I care about my grades. A lot.

I am trying to focus more on learning and expanding my horizons. But grades still loom over me. Judging me. An indication that I could do better, that I should do better.

I keep having to remind myself that grades are not the end-all, be-all, that grades do not indicate my value. But the number is there, proof that I did something wrong. And I strive for perfection.

But I don’t try to be perfect in other things that I do outside of school, such as learning a sport, an instrument, or a new language. I know I am not perfect, and I don’t strive for perfection. I just want to be able to learn and explore and do new, cool things. So why the difference between how I learn in school and how I learn things outside of school?

Let’s do a simple comparison.


In addition to the big differences in the learning environment and my personal goals, a few differences jumped out at me. When playing soccer, I was willing to take a risk and try new things. In classes, I tried to make sure I didn’t make a mistake.

Another difference was that I reflected on my performance and assessed myself more in fun activities than I ever did in school. And while I often had feedback from someone else (my soccer coach yelling at me for not shooting on frame, for example), I would take that feedback and reflect on my performance, what went well, and what didn’t go so well. And I would work to do better next time. Whenever I got a grade back in school, on the other hand, I was embarrassed at the mistakes I made and quickly put my test away never to look at it again. There was no room for errors. There was no reflection. Learning in school usually consisted of me trying to do something and being evaluated by an external source (usually the professor). I didn’t really think about what I was doing or why. I didn’t evaluate myself. I waited to be evaluated by someone else.

A powerful form of assessment is self-assessment. I use it naturally in everyday life. But it is not always present in the classroom. However, self-assessment and metacognition (thinking about your thinking) can encourage people to think about their current understanding of a subject and what aspects of a topic are confusing. They can help students compare where they are to where they previously were in their understanding. Self-assessment and metacognition can help people understand their strengths and weaknesses, how to improve, how to expand their abilities, and how to learn.


Are there any questions?

Where do I begin?

While reading Anti-teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance and the first two chapters of Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning, I kept thinking about a book I recently read called In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, by Brooks and Brooks. As described in this book, students construct their own understanding of the world and transform new information based on prior experiences.

The book describes 5 principles of constructivist classrooms:

  • Teachers pose problems that are relevant
  • Teachers build lessons around primary concepts
  • Teachers seek and value the views of their students
  • Classroom activities challenge students’ uncertain beliefs
  • Teachers assess students in daily activities

A common element in these five principles is the importance of questions. To pose relevant problems, teachers ask questions about topics and problems that are relevant to the student. To identify and build ideas around primary concepts, teachers ask questions and provide materials that help students identify their own concepts. In seeking the views of their students, teachers ask students to describe their point of view to better understand students’ reasoning, existing beliefs, and perspectives. To incorporate aspects into the curriculum that challenge students’ misconceptions and suppositions, a teacher first needs to understand what those misconceptions are through questions and feedback from students. And to assess students in daily activities, teachers ask questions to better understand the type of help the student needs.

And while questions are not the only aspect of constructivism or constructivist classrooms, they are an important part. Questions are an important part of learning, and questions should be an important part of education. However, the only two questions typically asked in classroom settings by teachers are: what is the answer? and are there any questions?

These two questions do not inspire, do not encourage, and do not invite participation. So how can we inspire? How can we encourage learning, discovery, and exploration? And how can we create a dialogue instead of a monologue that students mindlessly repeat?

Which comes first: the what, the why, or the how?

Learning happens all the time. I just finished watching the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. During the show and even after, I asked my friends and family questions, looked up information online, and just wanted to know as much as I could about the legal system and the specific case in the documentary. And I learned a lot. The show sparked my interest, I connected with others, and we all shared in the learning experience. This type of learning is part of the idea of connected learning.

Connected learning is the idea that learning thrives when a person’s interests are engaged in an environment where students work with their peers towards a shared purpose which can then lead to academic success. I love the idea that students can explore their interests and work with their friends and peers to actively engage in learning. But how does the learning connect to academic subjects and lead to academic success? And what does academic success look like in these environments?

In addition to rethinking the learning environments in academic settings, we should also reconsider how students can demonstrate their learning. Connected learning reexamines how students learn, but we can’t forget about what students learn. Considering what students learn, why they should learn it, and how they should learn it should be an iterative process that is always ongoing. And learning outcomes can be helpful with the what students learn and why. Learning outcomes don’t have to be restrictive; they can guide learning and specify a destination without specifying how that destination is reached. But then how do we know if students reach that destination?

For example, one student outcome for all undergraduate engineering students is the ability to function on interdisciplinary teams (for more info, click here). This outcome does not specify how students must demonstrate this or even what exactly it means to “function” on a team. It is an end goal and is up to educators and those in charge of the curriculum to interpret. This learning outcome can be addressed in connected learning environments where students work in teams to solve problems of interest to them. What we need to change is how we assess students. Instead of traditional multiple choice tests, we can use projects and presentations and student reflections to assess students on the teamwork learning outcome.

Connected learning environments can provide students with unique and meaningful learning environments. When rethinking the learning experiences students have, we should also reconsider how students can demonstrate that learning. Both educators and students should have a general idea of where we are trying to go (the what) and why we are trying to get there. Student outcomes can still be the destination, but the journey may be different with connected learning.