Engineering Education Zealots

Moderator: I’m going to really confuse our cameraman by moving the microphone right here for the next question. Sorry.

Audience Member: Russell Jones, World Expertise, LLC, and Chair of the International Division of ASEE. Over the past couple of decades, the excitement I have felt in this general area has been intercepted with its coalitions program. It pulled together a series of zealots from disparate campuses and put them together. They became critical mass, people moving engineering education research forward.

NSF in its wisdom chose to walk and do nanotechnology instead. I think that was a mistake. I see some programs being put back that I think are headed in the right direction again. But what that program did was two things. One, it made engineering education research viable on a lot of campuses because it brought money in.

If you look carefully at what engineering education research needs, it’s money because that is what’s respected on our campuses. It didn’t bring in money for biotechnology or composite materials research. If you are a respected researcher, and you want to bring in money for engineering education research it’s hard to find, but unfortunately that’s what makes it credible with deans and provosts. I used to be the sum of each of those.

The real question I have to the panel is are there enough zealots on our campuses today to have a critical mass without coalitions or do we still need some sort of coalition across campuses in order to get a critical mass of people to do good engineering education research?

Moderator: Excellent question Russell, thank you. Comments? Sheri?

Sheri Sheppard: I must say I was one of those zealots back in the early coalition days and did it as an assistant professor which has some issues with it too. I think one of the most important things from my perspective that the coalition program did was bring a critical mass together. I think in some ways the approach we took to the work was a good first cut but it was really at the curriculum level. We were changing courses. It’s now this next wave of NSF grants that’s focused on centers that’s actually getting to research questions.

So I ‘m hopeful that actually the focus of NSF’s funding has shifted from just changing your course to thinking about the higher level issues. Whether there is enough money, I don’t think so because I think the type of projects and programs and problems we’re tackling are interdisciplinary. So it’s not a single researcher tackling a problem. It’s collaborating with someone in the learning sciences so the money has to be enough to get those interdisciplinary projects under way.

Elaine Seymour
: You touched on something that we picked up a little while back and that is how will the change come? How will this happen? How will we turn the beginnings of interest into something that’s serious and a mass movement?

My experience in this is based more with the chemistry consortia with whom I worked for about seven years. One of the things I saw was the power of networks. I saw the generative, creative power of workshops to give people a safe place to retreat from the normal pressures of their work and become learners again, put themselves in a vulnerable position and become learners again.

And through that to make contact not just with people in their own departments who are similarly interested, because often people are lone persons in departments trying to make change on their own. That’s very dangerous. The building of networks across campuses with people in other departments, finding the resources that you need in the social sciences, in education, wherever. Those networks I observed in chemistry are still flourishing.

That is what moves people forward. Meeting the same people, finding ways to piggyback meetings in disciplinary conferences, making room for papers in those conferences, as has happened, that address educational issues and building a community which is across departments, across institutions is, I think, the way we have to move forward.

So anything the NSF and other funders can do to support the workshops, to support the networks so those conversations keep growing and more and more people are drawn into them, that’s the way that change happens. It’s the seduction theory of change.

Moderator: Norman, do we still need collaborations or are the zealots going to replace the collaboration?

Norman Fortenberry: Well, you asked the question initially in terms of are there enough zealots out there. I would assert there are. Let’s start with a base of every engineering faculty member. I think that, by and large, the engineers take pride in their work. If you tell a faculty member that there is a way that you can do a better job in the classroom, it will take a little bit of your time, but you can substantially improve the performance of your students. I think engineers have enough professional pride that they have interest in doing that.

A subset of that population will also become sufficiently intrigued that they will also become more interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning and actually discovery verging on engineering education.

I think we have a population to build from. I think what’s required is to create an environment that will nurture and sustain that population in its work.

Juan Rivera: I think that also what’s needed is market pull from industry and government to identify that this is a needed capability and otherwise the nation will suffer. We will not be advancing unless we implement some of these changes we are talking about.

It is important to identify that there is a need and so that will provide the incentive for the academic institutions to make these changes and create the departments and the programs that we are talking about.

Leave a Reply