Archive for September 16, 2009

Engineering as a Context for Education

I admit up-front that I did not hold out much hope for the new report from the National Academies “Engineering in K12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects.” As a new, untenured assistant professor in educational technology at Georgia Tech, I did a lot of my early work in engineering education.  Engineering is the 800 pound gorilla on campus, and that’s where the greatest learning needs and opportunities were.

I tired of banging my head against the infrastructural challenges of Engineering education.  My collaborators in Engineering were warned against  working in education.  One was told by his chair that every publication in Journal of Engineering Education would count as a negative publication: “Not only was it a useless publication, but it was time wasted that could have been spent on a real publication.”  Graduate students in Engineering wouldn’t work with us because they feared that it would hurt their progress.  Senior faculty in education mocked reform efforts. One Civil Engineering professor I interviewed told me at length why undergraduates should never collaborate (“It prevents real learning”). When I pointed out that ABET accreditation guidelines required collaboration, he just smiled and said, “Yeah, that’s what they say. We know how to get around those rules.”

When I got tenure, I decided to focus just on computing education.  We have many of the same attitudes among our faculty, but I care more about our problems.  I’m willing to bang my head against the wall for longer.

Nowadays, I promote a strategy of using context to motivate and sustain engagement with computing education.  I’m pleased to see a similar idea in the new National Academies report:

How might engineering education improve learning in science and mathematics? In theory, if students are taught science and mathematics concepts and skills while solving engineering or engineering-like problems, they will be able to grasp these concepts and learn these skills more easily and retain them better, because the engineering design approach can provide real-world context to what are otherwise very abstract concepts.

I don’t agree that it’s the “design approach” that provides the real-world context, but I completely agree with the rest.  It’s like the approach that Owen Astrachan has been emphasizing — the power of the problem that students address. The engineers are saying that they own “real-world context” more than scientists and mathematicians, and I think they’re right.   Now I’m actually looking forward to reading the rest of the report.

September 16, 2009 at 10:45 am 4 comments

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