If you have a Ph.D. in engineering, must you be able to teach it?

Moderator: Karl Smith is in the audience. This is a good time to quote Karl of the University of Minnesota. Karl said this, “We’ve assumed for too long that if you’re an expert engineer — i.e. you have a Ph.D. in engineering — that you can teach it.” Research in other disciplines, however, indicate that there is specific disciplinary pedagogical knowledge that is needed for teaching. It seems to me that the engineering community lags far behind, for example, the learning scientists and in other areas, humanities and so forth, in applying this pedagogical knowledge. How are we going to get to the point where we’re ready to make use of our skills and technical research as applied to educational research? Is Karl right? If you have a Ph.D., you must be able to teach it.

Jim Pellegrino: Well, you’ve opened up the pedagogical content knowledge can of worms, and on purpose. Actually, I think it’s a very good one. I think people are confused as to what we show and measure and what this really involves. The distinction is, I think, a very important one and it’s captured in the fact that knowing a discipline extremely well does not mean that you have an appreciation. In fact, you may have had an appreciation, but you may have lost that appreciation of what it takes for a learner to get to that level of expert knowledge and understanding, and the ways in which you can facilitate them and the stumbling blocks they’re going to hit along the way.

So pedagogical content knowledge is an appreciation of the ways in which you can present the material that takes into account both what it is you want people to learn and the course of learning that is going to be optimal for them. The techniques, the approaches, the way to get somebody from a novice to a highly expert level of understanding, and the simple fact that you can’t take a novice and turn them into an expert just by simply telling them what an expert knows.

Moderator: David?

David Radcliffe: I’d take that even further. I think one of the real things we can do here is to really understand engineering for the first time. I believe it’s a discipline we really haven’t inquired into ourselves. We tend to see ourselves as problem solvers and as a collection of technical knowledge. This sort of research leads us into understanding philosophically what engineering is about. How do we acquire our knowledge? What’s the basis? In every other discipline, their fundamental education is around how do you acquire knowledge in that discipline and what’s that knowledge that’s being collected. We tend to just deliver the knowledge instead of delivering the means by which we acquired that. So I think the engineering education enterprise, beyond and in addition to learning about how best to educate and help engineers at all stages of their development and formation, we can actually get to much deeper, more fundamental things that really puts engineering on a philosophical basis which I don’t believe it has at the moment. It’s an exciting opportunity.

Moderator: Elaine?

Elaine Seymour: I’m very impressed with some of the research that’s coming out of engineering education scholarship at the moment, which may address the points made by David and Jim somewhat. A piece being done at Colorado School of Mines, for instance, is studying the issue of the hardness of certain conceptual matters. A serious thing in any discipline to understand is why students find certain things particularly difficult to get their minds around. If you can understand such a thing, then it is incredibly practical and useful to know because then you can think about how to portion out your time and energy in a course, to make sure that people walk out of that course understanding those things.

So I think this is an intensely practical endeavor. I’m very encouraged by what I see, not only with the quality of the research that’s starting to come, but also in the development of faculty, our scholar teachers. From almost a standing start when I began the work we do, 15 or so years ago, when nobody was discussing this, I at least now see a national dialogue. So many associations in the sciences and engineering have built education sections to their conferences and those discussions are there which did not happen before. I see workshops everywhere, people teaching each other how to use this pedagogical knowledge. I’m very encouraged. I think we have a groundswell coming.

Moderator: Jeremy, do you have a comment?

Jeremy Noonan: I want to respond to what David said about the importance of understanding the philosophy of engineering. When I was an engineering student I remember asking myself philosophical questions about what I was learning. Where does this knowledge come from? What is this knowledge? What’s the nature of the phenomenon that we’re studying? I felt like, without a philosophical understanding of engineering, that my mind was limited in my ability to make judgments about it.

Moderator: Sheri?

Sheri Sheppard: I actually have two questions for Elaine. One is do you distinguish between the scholar-teacher, which is a nice phrase, and the engineering education researcher? is that a different person than the engineering education researcher?

Elaine Seymour: I’vm seeing people who are discovering this research and theoretical world for the first time and I find this very impressive. This is because, although our moderator mentions things are going on in the social sciences, I don’t see it. I have seen all the action happening on the science, engineering and mathematics side of campuses. This is where people are bothering to read books and papers and attend conferences that address learning issues and are teaching themselves to how to use the pedagogy that comes out of this kind of research and they’re teaching each other. So, that’s what I mean by the scholar-teacher, the people who are using and sharing this knowledge.

Sheri Sheppard: So hopefully, that would be all engineering faculty?

Elaine Seymour: Given time and the river running, I suppose so. [Laughter]

Sheri Sheppard: My second question, Elaine, is: You’ve done some very influential work on the theory of change and how does scholarship research get into the community. It’s a hard problem and I think we were flirting with that earlier. I’d like you to share some of your insight in to that issue.

Elaine Seymour: Gary and I were discussing this last night and he was somewhat dismal about the slowness of the progress that we have made nationally. I think perhaps not just in engineering, I think he was thinking more broadly about that and I guess the gist of my answer was “what do you expect?” Change is hard and it is slow and basically, we don’t like it. We don’t like to be changed, it’s risky. It is comfortable to stay as we are, and our best mode is mainly inertia, just to keep going, keep our nose in the same furrow. It takes quite a lot to jolt us out of that mode so (and I include myself in this most heartily) it is difficult to do. Earlier on, somebody mentioned clients, and I think you used the word “marketing.” I think we are in a time when we have to think about the students as our customers, as our clients in a way we have not done before and make them front and center. And I think we have to look at our colleagues with an eye not to proving that we do good or at least no harm, but with an eye to selling, we are in the marketing business I think when it comes to the upshot of the research. It’s clearly not the case that by my telling you what I do or what a colleague does works and here is the evidence. It’s not the case that my colleague is going to take that on board just because I offer some data. There is selling involved. And that is what makes it so slow.

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