T-minus 1 month and counting

T-minus 1 month and counting

Lately, I’ve been discussing a lot about proposals (see here and here) and some work outside of academia but I’ve only briefly touched on the some of the other aspects of being a professor. Presently, I’m finishing up a young investigator proposal which is due shortly and consuming most of my time (hence my lack of posts at GEARS).

Well, the fall semester starts at the end of August so as soon as I’m done with this proposal, I’ll have to focus more on teaching preparation. Luckily, at SnowU, I only have to teach one class in the fall and one in the spring. Unluckily, however, my first class will be a senior comprehensive lab-project course. In addition to a class full of seniors, there are usually about 10 graduate students who take it who did not go through UG at SnowU.

Now, many new profs negotiate to have their first semester off from teaching to establish their group. However, I got that switched to my second year because I’m fairly experienced at setting up a lab from scratch (OldEuropeU) and I would rather cherrypick meet potential grad students sooner rather than later. Plus, I’ll have a few proposals under my belt and if I land one, I can really focus on results once I have a few students and some external research money coming in.

I must say though, even though I’m comfortable in ad hoc situations and public speaking, I’ve pretty nervous about the upcoming semester. Hopefully, my first semester of teaching won’t make me turn as grey as in the picture. More importantly, I’ve been learning a few things about the lab-project course I’m supposed to teach. Naturally, I want to make a few changes and I’ve been given leave to do so. Some of the things that I’ve suggested to support staff for the class include linking lectures and labs, making the lab topics fit within an overall theme, and requiring more written reports for the lab section (currently there’s no formal reports, just Q&A).

The odd thing about my suggestions is why isn’t that done already? If you only have a few key labs for the students before it is turned over into a project course, why wouldn’t you structure them to be within a common umbrella? That makes teaching the concepts easier because you have a common reference point for each topic to return to for examples. Also, what’s the point of having lectures for a lab class if they cover two vastly different topics? I thought the point of the lectures prior to the lab were to reinforce the material and provide fundamental background prior to getting into the nitty gritty?

Think back to some of your undergrad lab classes. Were lectures that were associated with the labs linked or did they cover two different subject matters? Did you get the sense that the course followed a common theme? Am I having delusions of grandeur?

 

8 comments

Delusions of grandeur; I doubt it. In chemical engineering we did a lot of practical labs for ungraduate courses. Some examples

Courses and labs for chemistry were not necessarily linked but rather the laboratory practicals were there to cover the standard reactions and procedures.

Mechanics involved lab and course work on say friction. Instrumentation involved studies into hysteresis and control in both a practical and theoretical sense (i.e. the equations of control theory were shown to have a practical and physical foundation).

For chemical engineering distillation is a major topic (approximately 2 hours a week over 4 years) so we had to do several lab sessions with several types of columns and of course design them in theory (ultimately). Bernoulli and pressure drop were relatively simple to see in action in the lab but no so on paper. Air humidity and cooling tower design involved running a bench top cooling ‘tower’ to show L/G equations in action. Etc.

It was a mixed bag during my time in college. The courses where the labs followed a central theme definitely were way more effective. For example, my basic electronics class. Lecture work was tied into the labs by building up the circuits discussed that week be it a current source, diff pair, output stage, etc., until we had a full multi-stage amplifier breadboarded. Doing the hands on work in conjunction with the labs definitely helped my understanding of the material. In my opinion, I learned less in the ones where the lecture and lab seemed to be on totally different topics.

A senior design project should not have much technical content to the lectures—otherwise there is no time for doing a real project. What our senior design class has for “lectures” is instruction on team formation and engineering management and a lot of practice at writing reports and doing presentations. It is assumed that the students have (or can acquire) the technical skills needed for their projects, but have not had opportunities to learn the communication and management skills needed to pull off a real group project.

There are a few holes in the prior engineering education that have been identified by the instructors over the years, and the students are required to do some library research and present tutorials on these subjects (power supply design and thermal calculations for the EEs, for example).

A senior design project course should not be like first-year chem, with a lot of new material to be learned and practiced. It should be about making the transition from learning stuff that other people already know to discovering new things (in science) or making new designs (in engineering). Thus lecture should be limited to non-science, non-engineering stuff (Gantt charts, group charters, oral presentation, proposal writing, selecting research topics, lab safety, … ). As much as possible, the students should be presenting material to each other.

If the projects are individual, not group, then you could probably drop the management stuff and replace it with students presenting proposals and tutorials.

A good design class requires a lot of time from the professor, but not in lecture prep. The time is spent providing detailed feedback on written drafts (I require full drafts of the final report updated every 2 weeks), meeting individually with students or teams (half an hour per student every week) and hanging around the lab to help students debug their projects.

Hmm, I guess there was some confusion in my original post. I’m teaching a senior lab/project course which has “standard” topics to cover. Senior Design is an entirely different course (not taught by myself) that does those exact things you are talking about (project management, etc) rather than the X’s and O’s.

Unfortunately some of my labs were structured this way. I chalk it up to it really needing to be two classes (a separate lab and lecture) that cover different but related topics, but for whatever reason they’ve crammed it into one. It’s almost like taking two classes (the learning load and workload are such). That worked for me as a paying student as it meant sort of of a “half off” thing. It worked poorly for students who were on financial aid and had to take a required number of units to qualify and would’ve likely preferred the two classes actually be treated as two classes.

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