I’ve been wanting to post on the topic of Open Ended Questions for some time but haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts properly. One of the things that I think defines a person as an engineer is the ability to put forth potential solutions to open ended questions which may have several answers. I am particularly discussing questions where there is not one ideal solution but rather a series of tradeoffs and the person answering the question must justify their choices.
One of the things I tried to do in the classes I taught this past year was to keep some questions open ended to see how students would formulate their answers. In some cases, this was successful but in others, not so much. The other thing that struck me as strange is there wasn’t always a connection between a student’s standing and their ability to answer open ended questions. My feeling was that this is what made the top students in engineering, well, engineers.
I think back to my undergraduate university and open ended questions appeared in at least one class every semester. Often, we’d have a project to work on with a goal but no idea of what path to take. That is, in my eyes, pretty typical of an undergraduate engineering curriculum. When I did my masters, some of the questions in class were much more broadly defined and they sometimes didn’t even have a specific goal. These were of the “come up with a design for the best widget…” but you had to guess at what “best” meant. I tried to stay clear of that in my classes, at least giving a specific goal or a fixed constraint (i.e. What is the highest natural frequency you can get while minimizing this?). During my PhD, it was all open ended because that’s what you do in research.
I get the sense that engineers aren’t taught that way not. I know I’m only working with a small dataset so the numbers might be skewed. However, some of the responses to my open ended questions made me think the student hadn’t been asked a question where they had to critically think before. And this was the case for both undergrad and graduate students. If that’s the case, then we need to reexamine how our engineering curriculum to see how we can train future engineers to pose answers to open ended questions in the real world.
How much of an engineering curriculum should be focused on open ended problems versus calculated answers? Did answering open ended questions in college have a big impact on your education and training as an engineer?