“He chose to do what is right, not what is easy”

In his 2007 essay, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Parker J. Palmer takes issue with “knowledge” devoid of social context as the product of education, such that graduates—professionals—are subservient to institutions rather than the interests of humanity. ‘The institutions in which we work too often threaten our professional values.’ —Parker J. Palmer …

“No, I don’t think that is necessary”

Our readings about the sociocultural role of schooling makes me think about who decides who gets to go to college.

In community college, open enrollment makes higher education available to almost everyone, at least in theory. Inadequate preparation from grade school can be overcome, to some extent. In a community college engineering program, students typically begin their math with intermediate algebra. An extra year of math before Calculus I allows students who were not on the engineering track in high school to catch up. This was not always the case, and even now, it’s not a perfect solution.

Here’s my story. In the sixth grade, I transferred to public school. Coming from outside the public school system, my placement was determined by testing, and I was assigned to “6-1,” the top academically ranked sixth-grade class. The other nine sixth-grade classes were numbered “6-2” through “6-10,” in descending order of academic ranking from college-bound to remedial instruction.

The middle school had three or four elementary feeder schools. That’s why I was surprised and confused to find that every member of my “6-1” class, except me, not only already knew one another, but had been in the same fifth grade class together. I also found it odd that every student in our class was white. Through three years of middle school, there was some limited mixing between the top two classes. Halfway through the seventh grade, the two top math classes re-mixed, with one group preparing for 8th grade algebra and the other taking regular 8th grade math. The former would be favorably positioned for 12th grade calculus. Students who missed 8th grade algebra could catch up to the calculus class by doubling up on 10th grade math. A few students from the original “6-1” dropped down to lower ranked placements, but no students from “6-3” or below ever rose to the upper academic rankings.

Many years later, it dawned on me that “6-1” was simply the top fifth grade class from the whitest elementary feeder school selected wholesale, without evidence to support placement. The “6-2” class came from the largely Hispanic elementary school, which would have been my school had I attended public school in fifth grade.

There were many black students at my middle school, probably a majority of the school, but almost none were in the college-bound classes. I did not take classes with black students until high school. Even then, with only one public high school in a racially diverse community, black students were a small minority in the college-bound classes.

At that time, community college was not a realistic path for engineering students. To be accepted into an engineering program, one needed to at least be ready for Calculus I as a college freshman. This means that the person or policy responsible for selecting “6-1” from the most privileged effectively chose who would and who would not have a chance to become an engineer seven years before those students finished high school.

Thirty years later, I advocated for my son to be in the algebra-bound seventh grade math class, to no avail. There was no justification for my son’s placement on the non-algebra track except convenience for school administration, apparently. I was told that the first week of school was “too busy” a time to reconsider placements, then in the second week, it was “too late to change.” My son got a lucky break by getting transferred to a small special education school, where his placements were determined by testing. Halfway through the 8th grade, my son was told that he should rightly be placed in algebra, and he was given an opportunity to join an online class and complete the course in half a year, which he did. He did not become an engineer, but he had the opportunity to do so, and more importantly, his school helped instill in him an attitude and expectation that he could achieve academic success, which he did in high school and college. Unfortunately, the hundreds of students in the mainstream middle school did not all have this advantage.

The most shocking example of “power related dynamics” that “undermine social mobility” (as described in Critical Pedagogy in School) happened to me in high school. My parents went through the process of requesting my high school principal for permission for me to enroll in a single elective course at the community college in summer school, just to give me something to do. The principal’s response: “No, I don’t think that is necessary.” Obviously to me, the principal was threatened by the idea that I was not getting all the education I needed from public school and felt it necessary to supplement. At the time, I did not actually know what engineering was or that I should want to study it. The community college course that my parents suggested for me would have exposed me to engineering. So it was not really “elective” but an important part of my development. I am fortunate that I happened to find engineering another way, in time to matriculate into a university engineering program upon high school graduation.

From my perspective, it appears that little has changed in public schools since my school days. We in higher education are left to correct deficiencies through catch-up programs in community colleges, for a price which is largely borne by the students. Remedial classes tend to have heavy billable hours and may not get the same financial aid coverage as regular academic courses. The presence of these courses on the transcript may not be well regarded by the transfer schools that engineering students must get accepted into to become graduate engineers. It’s no wonder that the engineering profession has suffered from the same lack of diversity for decades. Selection, or non-selection, of who gets to go to college is built into the primary education system, and students are potentially crippled by arbitrary decisions made by others years before. They may never realize the impact upon their own lives; being unaware is part of the lack of agency promoted by the system.

For more information:
Critical Pedagogy in School. (2005). Critical Pedagogy Primer, 97-114.

On Movie Nights

Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi gave me an epiphany when I read about “arranging informal cross-group conversations” in Chapter 9, on reducing identity and stereotype threat. I have a hunch that some of the interventions described in the chapter may have a broader effect on reversing underperformance than mitigation of stereotype threat. As a student club advisor, I have encouraged clubs to hold movie nights, which include a post-movie discussion.  The most memorable of these was a showing of Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” Several students (and one faculty member) of different racial and cultural backgrounds contributed to a stimulating 30-minute discussion after the movie.   My aim with the movie nights is to promote engineering identity formation by giving the group a common emotional experience in which they may identify with protagonists dealing with various challenges.  School Daze is not about engineers, but it is about college students, and it provides many poignant situations for movie night participants to identify with the characters and their struggles, which in our case, led to a rich discussion. The epiphany is that movie nights can precipitate interventions similar to those described by Steele.  So the movie does not have to be about “engineers,” just stimulating for cross-group conversations.  Perhaps the movie night intervention is one small measure to help level the playing field for many students, regardless of the origin of their underperformance.  The student who led the movie night discussion arranged a themed student-faculty forum about a different issue a month later.   I think he is onto something. For more information: Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do (issues of our time). WW Norton & Company. Lee, S. (1988). School daze [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Savor the Emotions

smell the flowersPaul Silvia’s article Knowledge Emotions may hold some clues for successfully integrating feature films into instruction, something that intrigues and fascinates me. I have a hunch that providing the class with a common emotional experience and a set of scenarios to frame learning later in the course is an effective way to foster deep learning, leading to knowledge transfer, but I do not have much guidance for designing lesson plans around multimedia instruction. The article explains that interest is an intrinsic motivation for learning.  In other words, the class will want to watch an interesting movie for the pleasure derived from it rather than for a grade.  Interest will motivate exploration, which disposes the class toward reflection and deep engagement.  Adding a wrap-up or debriefing allows for this reflection and is also a change-up activity, as suggested in this week’s reading by Middendorf and Kalish. Movies can be highly effective to motivate or facilitate learning when they induce a state of awe, which is something not typically provoked by traditional lecture. The movie sound track can be part of the awe-inspiring experience that opens one to further learning.  I have wanted to open the first day of class with the theme of 2001. In The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber speak to the “emotional” aspect of learning as they advocate for time for reflection, deliberation, and open-ended inquiry in pedagogical practices, for “cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience.”  [Berg 2016] Enjoying a movie together is a splendid way for a learning community to build pauses for reflection into its learning environment. Not only are emotions key to disposing one toward learning; they tend to feel good, and thus may contribute to well-being in general.  This weekend, as I endured an incredibly painful medical condition no doubt brought on in part by the stress of an academic job, I spent an hour watching a satirical current events show with my daughter.  Laughing with Katherine made me conscious that the physical and psychological grip of the pain was weakened slightly during that hour. With this week’s readings, I have a few more ideas about using movies and other multimedia content for instruction. While I’m exploring them, I’ll be sure to take the time to savor the enjoyment of the movies themselves and my satisfaction in creating a rich and pleasant learning environment. For more information: Kubrick, S., & Clarke, A. C. (2001). 2001:  A space odyssey. EUA, Reino Unido: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto, [Ontario];Buffalo, [New York];London, [England]: University of Toronto Press.

Fork† ABET

Is it time to kick ABET to the curb?

ABET’s proposed dilution of student outcome criteria, which will effectively reduce the breadth of engineering education, may be the death knell of ABET.

Various stakeholders are invested in decades of evolution in engineering education.   By all accounts, communication skills, teamwork skills, and an understanding of the engineering profession’s place in a larger society are important and necessary for engineering practitioners and sought by employers.  Here are some excerpts from several engineering schools’ mission or vision statements that describe their respective commitments to broad engineering education:

“Provide students with a broad and exceptional education that prepares them to excel in their professions and to become creative leaders and mentors in an increasingly complex world . . .”

Cornell University College of Engineering Mission Statement

“. . . the College nurtures the intellectual, professional, and personal development of its students. The College strives to prepare them for entry into the engineering profession, related fields and graduate programs, and for continuing development as highly competent professionals and responsible members of society.  A Bucknell engineering education is distinguished by . . . an emphasis on learning within a liberal arts university environment.”

“We believe it is essential to educate engineers who possess not only deep technical excellence, but the creativity, cultural awareness and entrepreneurial skills that come from exposure to the liberal arts, business, medicine and other disciplines that are an integral part of the Stanford experience.”

“WPI educates talented men and women in engineering, science, management, and humanities in preparation for careers of professional practice, civic contribution, and leadership, facilitated by active lifelong learning.”

“The WPI curriculum . . . has remained true to its original mission of fusing academic inquiry with social needs, of blending abstraction with immediacy, of linking new knowledge to applications.”

“We create a collaborative environment that embraces interdisciplinary thought, integrated entrepreneurship, cultural awareness, and social responsibility, and advances the translation of ideas into practical innovations.

“Provide engineering graduates who, through their excellent technical and leadership skills, cultural awareness, and social responsibility, will solve the challenges of the 21st century.”

Institutions that are committed to “nurturing” the development of its engineering students across multiple dimensions may find in ABET criteria a mismatch for their aims.  Engineering schools will not be alone in detecting a mismatch.  ABET’s own member societies claim to be deeply committed to the values that the new accreditation criteria will dilute.  For example, these are the published core values of ASME, which is the lead ABET member society for three disciplines:

  • Embrace integrity and ethical conduct
  • Embrace diversity and respect the dignity and culture of all people
  • Nurture and treasure the environment and our natural and man-made resources
  • Facilitate the development, dissemination and application of engineering knowledge
  • Promote the benefits of continuing education and of engineering education
  • Respect and document engineering history while continually embracing change
  • Promote the technical and societal contribution of engineers

When ABET’s member societies and the schools that seek accreditation become disenchanted with ABET’s move away from their core values and missions, they may collectively decide that ABET has outlived its usefulness. The obvious solution is to found a new accreditation body.  The pursuit of additional accreditation credentials will not void existing ABET accreditations. There is nothing to lose except the time and effort required, and this will be spent anyway in attempts to convince decision makers in ABET to retain language that is on the chopping block.

Eventually, the new body’s accreditation credential may become the preference of state engineering registration boards.  This may not be so far-fetched;  in Maryland, where ABET is headquartered, the statute governing professional engineering registration does not mention “ABET” or accreditation at all.  An engineer applying for registration must have graduated from a program “that the Board approves,” or alternatively, “that the Board has not approved,” with additional years of experience.  Without changing the law, a new accreditation can be adopted by the fact of the Board’s approval.  With or without an alternate accreditation credential, there is nothing in Maryland law barring the Board for Professional Engineers from ceasing to “approve” ABET-accredited programs that relax their liberal education components in accordance with the new criteria.

History is full of examples of mainstream institutions that ran their course, became outmoded, and were deposed into obsolescence:  bloodletting, primogeniture, segregation.  Let’s not turn back the clock on decades of evolution in the systems that must prepare graduate engineers for “engineering the solutions to the grand challenges of the 21st century.*”

*Purdue University College of Engineering Overview Statement


Reflections of Learning

Alfie Kohn makes the decades-old case against grades (and against tests, in his referenced posts) come alive by speaking to the very issues that trouble me and make me long for a different job.

I have spent years in pursuit of perfection in my grading, in designing tests that are more foolproof against cheating, and in crafting the perfect rubrics, the ones that make submissions easy for me to grade and put the blame on the student if they don’t like their grades.  Strangely, the ideal that drives this frenzy of constant activity is a quest for fairness and consistency.  I don’t like arbitrary assessments.  Being subjected to someone’s whim always made me angry, and I’m not going to do that to students.   So the rubric attempts to mute my opinion in the grading process and base the grades on a set of easily quantifiable and justifiable rules.   The rubric is an attempt to enforce consistency, but it cannot make grading fair.  The rubric is merely a proxy for whatever outcome is supposed to be assessed, much like grades are a proxy for the supposed degree of success or failure of students who took the course.

The problem here is that following rules is only one thing that future engineers need to learn.  It’s a big, important thing, but it’s not the only thing.  Sometimes, it’s better not to follow rules.  At times, making up new rules is the way forward.  Maybe sentences need to run on from time to time, do you get my point?  The rubric is not a good way to measure creativity, insight, or persistence, and why would we want to measure those things anyway?  A measurement is something that confines.  I want my future engineers to make mistakes and let their own experience, not my measurements, guide them.  The assessment tries so hard to be fair and consistent that it is necessarily arbitrary because it is blind to the important things.

As Kohn points out, students who value grades highly will tend to make safe choices.  My experience bears this out.  Furthermore, some of the best design work comes from “B” students (which is why B students rock!)  As part of the design assignment, I asked the students to write a reflection piece about why they chose that particular design and what they learned from it, and to include their review of the design software and recommendations for other users.  The “B” students often chose ambitious design objectives, and evidence of the quality of their learning is captured in the reflection writing.

“I chose to make a guitar because I really want to learn to play the guitar. I made the base of the guitar, starting out with 7 points and then with the spline tool I connected the points. The spline tool is what [creates] the round edges of the guitar.  After that, I mirrored the spline line about the centerline to make the guitar symmetrical.  Finally, I extruded the sketch.  To make the base hollow, I used the shell tool. I also used the shell tool to make the guitar three millimeters thick.  After I finished the base of the guitar I added the accessories on top. First, I made the hole by sketching a circle and extruding the opposite way. After that I added the part that holds the strings and the squiggly design on top with the spline tool. Lastly, I made the second part with the line and extrusion tool.”

  • – Mariam

Oh my gosh!  The students don’t need me to grade them; they can express the quality of their learning most eloquently with their own voices.

“While making this design, I learned a lot about how to dimension because I had to make the [guitar] symmetrical.  I also learned how to use most of the features in Creo, thus I can call myself a professional at using Creo.”

The type -“A” students tended not to submit the reflection piece. I suspect that they thought that they had satisfied the aim of the assignment with the technical drawing.  Maybe they considered the “extras” unimportant or something that I added so that students who could not master the software would be able to get some points for the assignment.

The reflection writing expressed the students’ challenges and struggles, and their gratification with a job well done.  I recall that the best learning experience I ever had was not graded.  When I told my English teacher why I believed that Lewis Carroll’s “Butcher” character in The Hunting of the Snark was a self-portrait of the author, he did not reward me with a grade at that moment.  The reward was my teacher’s admiration of my profound insight, and my belief that I figured out something that nobody has ever known before, except maybe Lewis Carroll.

If I let students assess themselves, then perhaps the grading outcomes would stop being upside-down, and hardworking, ambitious “B” students would not be relegated to second place.

Alfie Kohn has convinced me of the need to abandon traditional grading.  I have not yet assigned any grades in my digital class this semester.  Maybe it’s not too late to change this crazy game now, and shift my attention to encouraging and supporting actual learning.

More hugs please

My dual roles of teacher and learner help me be mindful that I am not just tasked with fostering an engaging, meaningful, significant, life-changing, experiential learning community for my students; I am a member of the learning community in my own right, accorded by my humanity.

Intense demands of the job that force me–voluntarily–to put the priorities of the institution, department, and class ahead of my own have probably left an impression that I am always “on,” and that my sole purpose is to serve the other learners.  Now that I think about it, the idea of professor as server or servant seems familiar.  A few years ago, before I melded advising and other engagement activities into my daily work, my job was mostly just teaching.  It occurred to me that a common student expectation was that I was there to “serve” up good grades to students (“and make it snappy!”), much like the server who dispensed our lunch at the fast food restaurant across the street.

We are the spatula

Humans fear the unknown.

Recently, I invited a colleague, who is also a graduate student, to an informal professional society dinner gathering for women.  She confessed that she was anxious because she did not know what to expect.  My colleague explained that as an introvert, she is uneasy in social situations.  A short time into the event, she realized that the whole thing was not as scary as she had imagined, and she relaxed and had an enjoyable evening.

Communication in formal and informal settings is what propels the work of engineers.  At that same dinner meeting, women engineers discussed their resistance to joining management because they prefer “technical” work.  While an affinity for the “technical” is common to many engineers, “technical” engineering work certainly does not preclude interaction with other humans.  In every step of engineering design and problem solving, communication is a key component.  Nothing is done in isolation.  Increasingly, teams are multidisciplinary from the earliest stage of the project.  Young engineers must learn to talk to people with different backgrounds and interests.

In my first semester at Montgomery College, there was an opportunity for my class to host a distinguished lecture.  I showed the class how to plan a reception, and I explained that their duty as hosts was to “mingle” with guests before the lecture.

“You mean we have to talk to people that we don’t know?”

Uh huh.  Talk to them, offer them a glass of punch, find out about their interests that attracted them to the lecture, and introduce them to someone else.  Be the “spatula” and “scrape the bowl.” *

I have had some anxious moments in my past.  I registered for the fundamentals of engineering exam three times before I finally had the nerve to take the exam, only to find that my fears of being unprepared were unfounded.  Fear is paralyzing when it keeps us from our goals.

With students, fear of the unknown inhibits them from seeking advising.

This semester, I have pushed each of my students in class to make an advising appointment; as a result, I advised a number of students who had never seen a counselor or an advisor.  The majority of novice advisees asked me what happens in an advising session.  They came in wondering what I was going to do to them, and they left surprised that being advised is not painful or even unpleasant.  It’s simply a matter of receiving advice, as well as active assistance (in the form of referrals or overrides) to promote the student’s academic success.  I have seen the results of NOT being advised, and that can sometimes be painful:  taking the wrong class, losing financial aid, missed deadlines.  Advising is certainly a key to student success, but there is more that I can do for students.

The most important work that I do for students is the stuff that I do not get paid for.

It doesn’t matter much what I teach, as long as it includes communication skills, because the exact content of an engineering education is somewhat arbitrary.  What matters is the things that students will remember, that will help them overcome their fears and engage (as in perform acts of student engagement).  Taking them to lunch after the Kindergarten event; taking students to engineering banquets , conferences, and IEEE meetings; stopping to talk to someone when I am on the way out the door at the end of a long day; creating special awards to recognize students publicly for achievement when they do not expect it; taking my class to breakfast; mentoring clubs; leading out of town field trips; movie nights.  These are the things that really make a difference to the students and to me.  They are the things that call me to the professoriate.

*Spatula analogy for networking was a take-away from the VCCS New Horizons Conference in Roanoke, April 2011.  No published references.

1 2