Tinkering as a valid part of education

Tinkering as a valid part of education

A profesor I once knew began a conversation with, “What classes are you taking this semester?”
I responded, “I’m taking a class on teaching, a-”
“Teaching?! Why are you taking a class on teaching? You don’t need a class to learn how to teach. You just do it.”

The irony of this is that this professor was considered one of the worst teachers in the whole department.

Chris’ post on a ‘tinkering class’ got me thinking (again) about what is really a good way to educate people.  And despite some of the comments on Reddit, Chris is actually on the right track for some of the more current thinking on approaches to STEM education.

So what do you want from someone educated in a STEM field?  Obviously they have to have a certain amount of background knowledge, they need to have problem solving skills, they need to be inquisitive and motivated, they need to work well with people.  As I have discussed on my own blog, education of engineers seems to focus almost exclusively on the problem solving, though that’s usually broken down between the applied problem solvers and the theoretical problem solvers.

When I was doing my masters, I taught a couple labs in engineering.  I’ve also taught labs in geology (general ed) and physics (both general ed and upper-level), but the engineering labs were my favorite.  However, it really bothered me that there were a small but nonzero number of students who were interested only in getting a good grade and not in learning the skills.  I can understand people in general ed classes having no interest in the topic matter…but an engineering major who cheats or punts in an engineering class?  Why?  It makes no sense to me.

I have often pondered whether there is any way to achieve the above objectives, make things interesting for motivated students, and to *ahem* discourage the ones who seem to have no intrinsic interest in engineering.  (For the record, I would also like to say that those who seem to be uninterested may also benefit from such a change as it may spark their interest.)

Throughout my schooling, I have been inherently interested in education, and have come across a few views that, in my opinion, could lead down this path.  There are two issues that I think are key in creating this type of environment:

Student-centered instruction – Most of us are the products of teacher-centered instruction.  In this paradigm, the teacher is the focus of the class.  The teacher stands up and lectures using visuals.  The students may or may not be engaged.  Student-centered instruction, by contrast, puts the focus on the students and the teacher becomes a facilitator.  The students become responsible for their own learning, getting help and guidance from the instructor.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) – PBL is a method of instruction that presents the student or group of students with a problem to be solved.  The problem is usually not a simple one where the answer is right or wrong; the problem is open-ended and may have many possible solutions.  PBL is inherently a student-centered instructional method, but there are several others.

In order to get students engaged in a STEM classroom, you have to give them the reigns.  The notion of students being “empty vessels, waiting to be filled” is simply false.  Learning should be viewed as engagement on the part of the student, accomplished by actively researching and attempting to solve problems.

There are many advantages to this instructional paradigm: students become responsible for much more of their learning, they must be involved to succeed, and they will feel more accomplished.  Further, it involves higher-order thinking (according to Bloom’s taxonomy) rather than regurgitation of facts or simple repetition of learned processes.

The down sides are that many students are resistant to this type of learning: they have been trapped in an educational system that encourages passivity for a very long time, and the shift can be difficult to make.  (I think that most people appreciate it after they’re out of school and see how useful it would have been for their job.)  It is much more difficult for novices to accomplish this type of learning because they don’t have much background to draw upon and may not understand where to start.  It can be slow.  It can be difficult and time-consuming for the teacher to implement. (And let’s face it: most professors are going to be judged on their research and not teaching.)  It is open-ended, making assessment difficult to implement and perhaps somewhat subjective.  One of the biggest challenges in implementing this type of instruction is that it may be difficult to reconcile with educational accreditation.  It is difficult enough to cram in all the requirements that most educational programs need for accreditation, but this type of learning (and teaching!) is more time consuming.

Realistically, I think the ideal curriculum is a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction.  At early levels, student-centered instruction should be given in small bites.  Most labs are somewhat student-centered, although my personal feeling is that they are too formulaic to do much good.  At higher levels, student-centered learning should be more standard as it encourages students to integrate theory and application.  In essence, it gives one a chance to tinker.

Senior design courses, like the one that FrauTech mentioned, are usually good examples of this type of learning.  However, my feeling is that it should be done throughout the educational experience and not as a final test of engineering skill.

Did you experience any of this type of learning in school?  If so, how do you feel it compared with the more traditional teacher-centered paradigm?

1 comment

As an example of PBL, my 8th grade science teacher had an end-of-year project she called “Sludge”. Our lab curriculum had emphasized various basic analysis techniques, like paper chromatography, filtering, and finding boiling points. We were broken up into group of 2-3 students, and given a jar of sludge. There was a list of possible components, and everyone’s jar had 6-8 different things in it, which you were supposed to figure out, based on the techniques covered the rest of the year. I loved that project!

One of my current courses is on principles of failure analysis, and is very student centered. Students bring in failed objects, and we’re going through the steps of how to effectively determine the cause of failure on several of them. The professor acts as a consultant: he won’t tell us what to do next, other than to answer between a finite list of options we give him. It’s a fantastic set up for this kind of topic, which is all about learning how to examine something critically.

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