What engineering educators don’t struggle with

June 11, 2012, 4:18 pm

I’m attending the American Society of Engineering Education conference and expo this week in San Antonio, and I hope to have some short blog posts from the various sessions and talks I’m attending.

This morning I attended part of a session on model-eliciting activities and the main plenary, which was titled “Keeping it Real” and focused on tying together academia and industry in engineering education. There were lots of good ideas discussed, but if there was one coherent take-away from these talks, it’s that engineers — at least the ones whose focus is on learning and teaching — are a lot further along than mathematicians in education practice.

Granted, my title here is a little overstated. I am not looking at a representative sample of engineers at this conference. These engineers are the ones who care and think the most about effective learning and teaching; I’m sure there are just as many who, like a lot of academicians, would rather spend as little time on learning and teaching possible. But even when compared to a similarly-motivated audience of math people at similar conferences, the one thing you will notice is that engineers are (or at least seem to be) way past the existential struggles of whether student learning ought to be collaborative or technology-enabled. It’s obvious to practicing engineers that they ought to be. The very profession dictates this — it’s moving with astonishing speed, and the kind of engineering training that worked in 1970 or 1980 simply doesn’t work today. Engineers, at least the ones here, embraced that a long time ago and have moved on, and quite decisively I might add. I have to admit I’m pretty envious of the engineering education community for that.

Mathematicians and math teachers, on the other hand, seem to be moving much more slowly in this direction. Two years ago at this conference, I half-blogged/half-facepalmed about this sort of thing. Even at education conferences that attract people who aren’t sticks in the mud about teaching, we still have these arguments about whether technology should be in the classroom and whether collaborative learning is better than direct instruction. It happens here on Chronicle of Higher Education blogs and other online fora. Why are we having these discussions? The reality of learning in the modern world has settled this issue… hasn’t it?

What would happen if all of us STEM people just said, Look: The world into which our students are entering demands that they be effective communicators, be able to expand their skills sets continuously on their own throughout their lifespans, use technology intelligently, and work with diverse groups. So let’s arrange our teaching that way, and if we have to cut some content out, so be it. That would be pretty radical.


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