Since I started at VT during the fall 2015 semester, there is one statement that I repeated on the first meeting of practically every class I took: “I am here because I teach engineers, but I am trained only as an engineer and not as an educator.” I arrived at this realization before I left home, but I had no idea about how much there was to learn and how much needed to change from the way we taught and organized our curriculum until I got here. I realized that it was not enough for me to bridge the gap I recognized in my skills and identity as an engineering educator; there are institutional and systemic issues that need to be looked at and addressed as well.

This week’s readings served as another reminder of that realization. It was interesting to note that despite the fact that I came from an institution that placed value on integrating liberal arts education into the sciences, those of us who taught in engineering are still not able to give our students the holistic education that they need. When I reflect and think about it, it is an unfortunate paradox that I hope will change eventually.

Dan Edelstein’s quote from Mark Mills and Julio Ottino’s Forbes article is something that my institution subscribed to: “Innovation […] requires the attributes of the humanities found in right-brain thinking: creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotions.” In the Philippines, degree programs in higher education institutions are regulated by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), which mandates minimum course credit requirements that students should satisfy before being conferred a degree. For my discipline, CHED regulations require students to earn at least 221 credit units over five years (engineering is a five-year program back home), 39 of which are Humanities courses, in order to get a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. At my institution, however, a student needs 256 credit units to earn an electrical engineering degree; they take 27 more units of Humanities courses on top of the CHED-mandated 39 credits. Examples of courses that our students are required to take but are not mandated by the government are Theology and Philosophy courses.

So from the perspective of recognizing the importance of the Humanities, it seems like we made an effort to provide our engineering students with this important aspect of their education. However, I question whether we did more than just place a tick mark on a check box; how helpful will being saddled with 69 Humanities credits on top of 16 service-based course credits and 171 engineering and sciences course credits be to a student? As a basis for comparison, a student needs 132 credit units, 20 units of which should be from the curriculum of liberal education, in order to earn an electrical engineering degree from Virginia Tech.

My students…

What I have observed both as an undergraduate student and as an instructor in this environment is that the significance and positive impact of integrating liberal arts education into the engineering curriculum is diminished because of the immense workload that students are saddled with. Students are, more often than not, faced with choosing between finishing that 200-item problem set over spending time reflecting upon a reading for their Moral Philosophy class. It also does not help that some of our engineering instructors perpetuate the notion that engineering courses are more important to their degree than their non-engineering courses.

Palmer defined the “new professional” as “a person who is not only competent in his or her discipline but has the skill and the will to deal with the institutional pathologies that threaten the profession’s highest standards.” In order for my home institution to “produce” graduates who will embody this definition, engineering instructors should go beyond the abstract concepts and equations, as suggested in Palmer’s article. We should also foster an environment where the Humanities is considered as an integral part of the curriculum, and not a check box to be ticked off in order to meet “minimum credit requirements.” And most importantly, our higher education system should rethink the workload that we give our students; students should be given a reasonable amount of time to have a positive and balanced learning experience, allowing them to devote just as much time to discipline-specific as well as professional/humanities/liberal arts courses.

All this, however, is easier said than done. There are a number of other things that need to be considered – such as the teaching loads and compensation of faculty members – that I did not discuss here. I can only hope that I can make even a dent of difference when I share all the things that I have learned – and continue to learn – here.

Connections, interactions, and everything in between

I have seen quite an evolution in the way I study, work, consume information and interact over the years. I belonged to that generation that used typewriters to write term papers, then slowly progressed to WordStar and WordPerfect. I had a blue pager stuck to my waist band in college, and all I could do on my first cell phone was make voice calls. As a kid, our library at home had a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1970s (which never really got updated), and subscriptions to the National Geographic and Time magazines. It took a letter from my grandmother two months to arrive, and their barrio did not have access to phone lines, so I rarely got a chance to have a relationship with her growing up.

These memories came back as I went through the various readings this week. I could not help but appreciate how far we have come and how technology has changed the way we live. Despite the commentaries about how our current ways may lead to diminished meaningful interaction, I would have to say that my experience has been the opposite. The way I have used technology has made living on the other side of the world, away from family and loved ones, bearable, and allowed me to continue to engage in meaningful interactions with people I hold dear but could not physically be with. I cannot imagine not having FaceTime or Skype and not being able to talk to my family in the Philippines as often as I can for next to nothing through the internet; I would probably survive, but painfully so.

I have to admit, though, that despite the advantages and conveniences that are available through technology, I can still be pretty old school. I still like reading on paper and making handwritten notes (so I still print all my course readings); I resonated a lot with what Clive Thompson shared about physicist Richard Feynman – putting my thoughts and ideas on paper is my thinking process too.  There is a lot to be gained with the vast amount of resources that innovation has made available to us, but how we process that information is still very much a human, cognitive exercise.

My thought process…

My personal preferences and experiences is probably why my favorite lines in all the readings are these lines from Clive Thompson’s piece: “Which is smarter at chess – humans or computers? Neither. It’s the two together, working side by side.” To me, this is very true, and is exactly how I prefer to use not just computers but all the conveniences and technologies that are available to us right now. In a very real way, I see and live Jason Farman’s point that there are “significant ways in which our mobile devices are actually fostering a deeper sense of connection to people and places.” There will always be pros and cons to anything and everything, and it is the way we choose to leverage what emerging technologies have to offer that ultimately makes a difference. If you will it so, technology will work for you and with you.

That is good enough for me

The great Nelson Mandela once said, Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” Nine years ago, I wanted change. After leading the quintessential yuppie life for six years, I realized that I wanted more than just a job that paid the bills and kept a roof over my head; I wanted a career that would make waking up each day more meaningful, to do something not because I was being compensated for what I was doing, but simply because I wanted to. At the time, it felt like the world and living has boiled down to getting through the day because that was what one had to do in order to survive. I wanted my personal world to change, and I wanted to live a life where I could contribute more to changing the world. To my surprise, I found myself going home to the alma mater that prepared me for the corporate life that I thought I wanted. I became a teacher.

Truth be told, I stumbled into teaching quite accidentally; nonetheless, I feel that I was meant to be an educator all along. I grew up with teachers and scholars, as my paternal grandparents were both basic education teachers, while my father taught part-time at the graduate level. I have always found fulfillment in being able to share what I know, in whatever means possible, and being able to learn from that experience as well.

I have been teaching for seven years before coming to Virginia Tech and taught here during my first semester, and my teaching style is drawn largely from instinct and personal experience as opposed to formal training in education. I mainly looked back at my own experience as a student, adopted practices used by my own professors that I thought effectively aided my learning process, and stayed away from those that I felt were not helpful. Indeed, there is a lot for me to learn about how to effectively impart knowledge to my students; what has been constant since the first day I stepped into a classroom as a teacher, though, is the fact that I have never stopped learning from my students.

I have always viewed learning as a transformative experience, for student and teacher alike. As such, I favor activities that would expose students to situations where they would be able to derive learning. For Special Project, the senior capstone project course, I encouraged students to look for ways through which their knowledge of electrical engineering may find practical application and make a project out of that. I created situations that would expose them to entities or communities that may need their assistance and connected them to the appropriate people; from there, however, they are encouraged to innovate and use their creativity as they set out to find solutions to the problems that they identify.

I also subscribe to the notion that while there is a lot of information that can be gained within the four walls of the University classroom, there is no teacher quite like the School of Hard Knocks. And as I prepare my students to go out from the University classroom into the harsh realities of the world out there, I find myself going back to my own experience as part of the work force, and sharing these personal and professional experiences with my students. In teaching Computer Systems, a course taken in the fourth year, I consistently tie the seemingly abstract concepts that are being discussed in class to actual applications in the workplace, in the form of anecdotes – stories about my little successes and frustrations as a one-time programmer and project manager. These stories have served as a springboard of lively discussion, as students are able to visualize the lessons and make it real. Being honest about my own struggles in the workplace also allow them to think through their own struggles and find ways to face their own fears and challenges.

I value respect, and as a teacher, I feel that it is not something that I am entitled to just because I am the person of authority standing in front, with the power to make or break a GPA. It is something that I earn as I show students that they are people who I respect as well. This atmosphere of mutual respect is something that I try to maintain in the classroom, regardless of the course that I am teaching. And in my experience, it has allowed me to remain the person of authority in class – without forcing that fact to the students.

I respect the individual, and the fact that every person has strengths and weaknesses, attributes that, when recognized, acknowledged, and understood, allows people to build meaningful relationships and make positive contributions to society. In teaching an elective course on Project Management for graduating students, I used case studies and subsequent class discussions to illustrate this, and to stress the reality that engineers function in multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural teams that attempt to resolve ill-structured problems.

With the graduating class of 2013, Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, Ateneo de Davao University. Davao City, Philippines.

I believe that as an educator, I do more than just teach. My responsibilities go beyond instruction, as I play an important role in the formation of these young people as they prepare to take their place in tomorrow’s society. And every single day, I wake up trying to do better than how I did yesterday – not because I have to, but because I want to.

So how has education helped me change the world? I take pride in the fact that while I myself have not formulated a new theory or developed the next big thing in electrical engineering, I have been a part of the lives of young people who may eventually change the world. That is good enough for me.

Learning need not be all work

Before I found my way back to the academe, I worked as a programmer and systems analyst. One of the fond memories I have of that “era” was being invited to my daughter’s school for a sort of show-and-tell about what I did at work. At this time, I was rarely home; these kids barely knew who I was, and the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass my daughter. But how do you explain COBOL programming, data processing, and If-Else structures to 8-year-olds?!?!

Needless to say, the days leading up to my talk were stressful. Suddenly, all the PowerPoint slides that I throw at the newcomers to my team were of no use to me. Thankfully, an idea finally came to me – how it managed to pop into my usually methodical and no-nonsense brain I cannot recall now, but I certainly am glad it came just in time.

I turned to what I though 8-year-olds will find more appealing: playing a game. We did a modified version of “Pass the message,” having the children form two groups and form a line, simulating a computer program. The “Message” is the data input that the child at the head of the line received, and passed on to the child behind him. The “Message” was “processed” by a group of two or three children, following “commands” that were given to them, before passing the processed data to the next group behind them. The “Output” was produced at the end of the line, and the children (thankfully!) had fun looking at how the initial message has changed, and how each group has contributed to that change. When the teacher facilitated a discussion afterwards, it seemed, at least to me, that the children did understand what was going on – and they had fun doing it. My daughter smiled proudly at me. I didn’t embarrass her! My day was complete.

This memory reminded me of how opportunities to learn are present in many different forms, and it does not necessarily mean sitting quietly for hours on end, listening to a teacher, reading books (or PowerPoint slides). Learning is not a solitary activity, and does not consist of receiving information, but constructing knowledge from experience. Which means that playing can give just as much – if not more – opportunities for learning as sitting in a classroom. Mark Carnes talked about active learning, and Jean Lacoste talked about giving students more autonomy and allowing them to take an active part in the learning process; all these point to a shift to a more student-centered paradigm that focuses on creating environments that produce learning, as opposed to simply transferring information.

Childhood is a journey, not a race…. Lessons from my daughter

Alfie Kohn’s article The Case Against Grades reminded me of a moment from about a decade ago, when I received one of the loudest “wake-up” calls in my life from my then-10-year-old daughter. At the time, I had been an absentee parent for six years due to work responsibilities, and was getting “re-acquainted” with the responsibilities of parenthood – including monitoring how my kid is doing at school.

Like most parents, I am particularly fond and very proud of my daughter. Even as a little girl, I found her to be sharp and articulate, and she could certainly hold her own even when engaging in conversations with adults. In short, I firmly believed that my daughter is one of the most intelligent kids in the world (don’t we all?). So I was very surprised when, after my first parent-teacher meeting, I found out that she was behind in Math and Science. I sat there in disbelief for quite some time that it overshadowed the fact that her teacher also told me that she was capable of handling more advanced course work in English and Literature.

I am an engineer. While I did not particularly care for Math and Science (wait, so why am I an engineer? That’s a whole other post in itself), I had always done pretty well in these courses, and I expected my daughter to do the same. When we got home, silly me launched into a tirade that began with “When I was your age… I could do this, and this, and this…” (I was not yet teaching at this point, so maybe I did not know any better?) After I finished my “speech,” my daughter looked me and said: But Mama, childhood is a journey, not a race.

Boom. I had no comeback. Granting that the phrase she just told me is the mantra that her school believed in (she’s smart, but no, she did not come up with that on her own), hearing it from her got me thinking about my own experience with school and learning, and whether that was really the kind of learning experience that I would also like her to have. Did it really matter whether my 10-year-old could do exactly what 10-year-old me could do?

Growing up, my most memorable things about school were the “accolades” that were up for grabs at the end of the school year. I always made sure I got a hefty slice of that pie, which my parents dutifully enshrined on a wall in our house for everyone to admire. I picked up a number of things along the way, sure (such as rattling off the multiplication table at the drop of a hat), but at the time they did not seem as important as the shiny things with my name on them hanging on the wall. During the academic year, I fixated on being able to get certain things and maintain certain grades, so much so that when I am unable to achieve a goal or two, the frustration can overshadow everything else.

In contrast, my daughter did not need to concern herself with such matters. When she was 7 years old, I was temporarily assigned to Phoenix, Arizona, and she spent part of that academic year with me. Since the academic year in the Philippines followed a different schedule, she was unable to enroll in the same school that I went to as a child upon our return, as they had strict guidelines regarding admission and she had missed so much. Instead, my parents found a small school that could accommodate her. This school had a “non-traditional” philosophy and approach to education; instruction and assessment were carried out differently. Even their classrooms did not look like the stereotypical classroom with rows of armchairs; children sat in round tables that allowed them to interact and work together. At the end of the school year, there was no program to honor a select few who achieved certain feats over others, but a general celebration of what each student has found meaningful to them. They did not show off the shiny things with their names on them that parents pinned on shirts (and that I loved so much growing up), but portfolios of the work that they have done and what these meant to them.

Over the years (after that first wake-up call ten years ago) my narrative for “When I was your age…” changed. Interestingly enough, they aligned with some of Kohn’s conclusions about grades. I saw that my daughter was truly passionate and interested in learning certain things (Math, unfortunately, was always a hopeless case and was not pursued with the same passion as Theater and Literature). When I was her age, I, on the other hand, worked so hard on making sure that I got excellent grades in everything that I had no time to really focus on what I loved and was interested in. She was more attuned to her strengths, weaknesses, and interests, and exercised a higher level of discernment in making decisions, such as those she made when she prepared for college. In contrast, my decision-making process mostly consisted of the prestige that I could get. In college, that meant reveling in the admiration of those who held my courage and persistence as the only female electrical engineering student in my class in high regard.

I do realize, though, that the question of grades and assessment is more complicated than “to grade, or not to grade,” and that not everyone who shared my experience went through life and made decisions the way I did. I do not trivialize the significance of grading and assessment and the roles that these can play in education. While there are a number of things that made my daughter’s learning experience more meaningful than mine, there are also pitfalls that I will not get into now, or this post will never get done. There are many things to consider, complexities that need to be navigated around. For me, though, an important step to take is to consider learning as a journey – one that is to be taken at a pace that makes sense to one’s unique circumstances, and to be enjoyed to the fullest extent that it can be, allowing for the development of passions, exploration of interests, and even committing mistakes that can be turned into valuable opportunities for growth. It should not be a race that one competes in against peers, or standards, or those who came before you (a.k.a. your mom). Because at the end of the day, what do these letters and numbers mean? Can these really define who we are as individuals, serve as evidence of how much we know and how competent we are, and how valuable our contributions to society can be?

It has been said that “kids say the darndest things.” Mine told me to chill-ax and let her learn and grow up in her own way, at her own time. With that one statement, she inadvertently encouraged me to look beyond letters and numbers and report cards, and appreciate who she is through way she carries herself and relates to others, and how she handles the joys and challenges that she encounters. She will be 21 in a few months, and I have to say, I am glad she stood up for herself and journeyed through life, not harried through it. It might not work the same way for everyone, but at least in our case – I’m glad I listened.

On Anti-Teaching and Mindful Learning: Keeping an open mind

My first reaction to this week’s topics was not very promising. The term “anti-teaching” elicited an unspoken “What?” in my head. The phrase “mindful learning” was also confusing to me – can one really learn anything mindlessly? Of course I had not done any reading at this point, and I had to remind myself to keep an open mind.

After all was said and done, I have to admit that there were still ideas and pronouncements that I found difficult to wrap my head around, but at the same time, I appreciate the passion and advocacy of Michael Wesch and Ellen Langer, because I share the same commitment to fostering student success. If anything, I found that their heart is in the right place, and their ideas provide great starting points for reflection and discourse.

I agree with Michael Wesch that it is important for students to “find meaning and significance in their education.” As someone who was also a student at one point in time, I can certainly see how it can be easy to fall into a cycle of merely trying to “survive,” of, for example, desperately trying to remember which formulas to use for what type of problem – at least until after the test is done. It is when one finds the “so what?” and sees what role today will play in the future that deep and meaningful learning can occur.

That being said, I found it difficult to relate to the notion that “teaching can be a hindrance to learning.” While I do see where Wesch is coming from, I found myself arguing that maybe there is only a certain context ascribed to teaching that may end up detrimental to student learning. Maybe if we thought of teaching as more of an act of facilitating learning as opposed to talking at students, it would not be such a hindrance to the learning process, at least when hindrance is taken in the context of what Michael Wesch was talking about. For this concept, I find Barr and Tagg’s (1995) article on the shift to the Learning Paradigm particularly interesting and informative.

I also found it hard to read that learning “the basics” so that they become “second nature” as a “myth.” When I read Langer’s Mindful Learning, I began to associate the concept with intentional learning as discussed by Jeanne Ormrod (2012) in her book Human Learning. While I also see where Langer is coming from, I believe that there is value in learning certain things to automaticity, to a point where they become second nature; if anything, it is because we have learned some things to automaticity that we are able to learn in a mindful and intentional manner, because it is at that point where we have the luxury of focusing on what truly matters.

Musings on learning in today’s world

The learning experience – especially in the context of formal education – has certainly evolved over the years. While I cannot directly quote literature right now, I have certainly heard stories from the “yesteryears,” stories shared by my parents, grandparents, and others in their respective generations, about the relationship between teacher and students. Nay, I would say that my early memories of education is that of being talked at by my teacher, and I attribute whatever knowledge that I eventually possess as things that I passively received from that sage-on-stage.

Advances in technology and telecommunications have made a lot of things possible. There is a wealth of information “out there” that is now more readily accessible. What I think this has meant for the learning process and the learner is that there is more opportunity to explore and independently embark on a quest for truth, in order to actively construct knowledge.

What this also means is that teaching has consequently evolved from delivering information and course content to facilitating the process where learners build knowledge for themselves. It is an interesting paradigm, one that may not necessarily be the norm for everybody at this time, but is certainly gaining traction in both basic and higher education. It is also certainly aligned with the “high-impact practices” promulgated by Kuh and referenced in Gardner Campbell’s article.

What I have come to realize is that when knowledge is actively constructed, through a variety of resources and media, it becomes a more engaging activity, a more holistic experience. And when the concept of learning moves from the rather uninvolved process of receiving and regurgitating information to that of living an experience and making memories, the knowledge that is built leaves a more lasting impact and is more meaningful. Nowadays, this can be done in a wide variety of ways; and with the internet bringing down barriers related to distance and time, there is no limit to the knowledge that one can build. There is also a great opportunity to share one’s intellectual work, and engage in discourse, even with people halfway across the world.

I guess the next question may be: as an educator, what can I do to maximize the opportunities that are made available to me? How can I make a difference?