Engineering as a Context for Education

September 16, 2009 at 10:45 am 4 comments

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.

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US Computing Education Research On The Sly What changes CS Education?

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  September 18, 2009 at 9:20 am

    C-SPAN recently ran the second part of a meeting/summit of engineering educators, the focus of which was this report. I found the first part as well. The video of each part is available online at:

    Part 1

    Part 2

    It’s quite a lot to sit through. I think Part 1 is 3 hours, and Part 2 is 2 hours in length.

    I was enthralled watching what I caught of Part 2 on C-SPAN. What they were talking about sounded innovative and generally moving in the right direction as far as striving to help students get the concepts. One of the presenters I believe was a high school teacher who’s involved with a program teaching engineering to high school students. He talked about the thought process of a 17-year-old girl who was trying to engineer her own model airplane from scratch, taking into account the power requirements of a 4-blade vs. a 3-blade propeller vs. the power output of a DC engine, and modeling and testing her fuselage and wing designs. I thought it was really impressive.

    What I noticed most was the quality of the discussion, particularly the umbrella concepts that they understood. I thought, “I don’t hear this kind of discussion taking place in the field of computer science.” I wish I did.

    Some of the difficulties you talk about in getting this going at the university level were brought up during a Q&A session towards the end. The gist of it was, “These sound like nice ideas, but where do they find a home?” It sounds like these educators are struggling with that aspect. One speaker was a dean of her department, so she at least has some pull. She talked about the odd situation she was in though by saying that the work she’s trying to do is typically done in the school of education for other fields, like science and mathematics, rather than in their own colleges. This is the situation she’s in, because she’s trying to establish this in her own department. She said something about how this work CAN’T happen in the schools of education, because they don’t have the background for it. One of the challenges they discussed was training educators who currently work as teachers, because most of them are not prepared to engage their students in this subject matter, or to even prepare them for it.

    It seemed to me that the participants had a grasp of the necessary ingredients to bring together to make engineering education work. Where they seemed really underdeveloped was in the “making it happen” aspect. There just isn’t the support infrastructure for it, and just from what I could see (I haven’t watched each part in full yet) it doesn’t seem that there are that many people who are in a position to lead the effort, and they’re having to create what they can from the ground up. They appear to have no giants on whose shoulders they can stand. They’re it.

  • 2. Mark Miller  |  September 19, 2009 at 2:09 am

    Re-reading your post, I thought about something Alan Kay said a while back, that engineering promotes case-based thinking, and that the reason engineering has gotten better is that at some point engineers figured out that science could actually explain why some engineering techniques work for some situations, and why some other techniques don’t. You’ve talked before about how CS educators (I think) tell themselves their own stories about how to learn. What you describe above sounds rather like case-based thinking. They’ve convinced themselves that “in this scenario, this is the right way to do it,” even when there’s an established body that mandates they do otherwise. Science is supposed to be about challenging assumptions and what we think we know. I recognize that this can be an uncomfortable process (especially when even scientists are expected to “know the answer”, and there’s pressure put on them to represent themselves this way), but I think it leads to more intelligent action.

    One thing that’s complicated this for CS is that for many CS educators the field used to lack definition (it should still lack definition, but from what I’ve heard you’d have a hard time telling CS educators this now), and so they grasped for anything that seemed to fill this void. My CS professors 20 years ago used to tell me “CS is just an offshoot or branch of mathematics”. That gave it some definition to them. I hear practitioners in the field say this to this day. If this is the accepted definition in a CS educator’s mind (with their likely understanding of mathematics), then there’s little room for the techniques of scientific inquiry. Instead they would focus on theory, analysis, and proofs as the basis for the discipline, with acceptance of the idea that “there are some artifacts that can’t be proved correct”.

    It sounds to me like CS and engineering educators are trying to “engineer” their students, without being informed by the process that science provides. They’re applying the same case-based thinking to their teaching, except that it’s all personal. Is there even a sense with them of “best practices”, which modern engineering has?

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  September 20, 2009 at 4:57 pm

      Hi Mark, I lost track in your note — what’s the antecedent for “What you describe above sounds rather like case-based thinking.”? Is it the use of context or problems in teaching? Or how the engineers react to reform efforts?

      Janet Kolodner would argue that all human intelligence can be understood in terms of case-based reasoning. There’s nothing that can be done with production rules that can’t be done with cases.

      • 4. Mark Miller  |  September 23, 2009 at 5:34 pm

        Hi Mark.

        I was referring generally to the attitudes of the people who didn’t understand education reform efforts, and specifically this part of your post:

        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.”

        The general thrust of my comment was rather than investigating research into how students learn engineering they base their epistemology on how they learned the subject. I translated this into “case-based reasoning”, because it fits a pattern of thinking that “because I’m in this situation (teaching engineering) I’ll always use this method.” Science breaks one out of this mold, causing one to ask the question “Are my assumptions about how students learn valid?”, and enters one into a process of refining methods rather than sticking to assumptions which worked for them when they learned it.


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