(Engineering) education needs more educated guesswork


Now that's how you paint a painting!


I see it all the time. So many talented engineers, who show so much potential through their ability to solve close-ended problems in classes, but when it comes to doing creative work and solving open ended problems they freeze. It's as if they're paralyzed in fear when it comes to doing work for which -- wait for it -- there is no "right answer." Guess what, that's life, and that's what "real engineering" is all about. I mean, you can work in an engineering firm, testing someone else's work, documenting someone else's work, selling someone else's work, etc. etc. but making the new ideas come to life, being creative, identifying a problem that no one else has solved and solving it--that's the good stuff -- IMO. e.g. how to make an electric car that has "sexy" mass-market appeal (Tesla), how to re-use a rocket and commercialize space-exploration (Space X), how to help ordinary people with a good or service to offer to confidently trade with each other (PayPal, eBay, airBnB, TakeLessons, Wyzant, etc.), how to make climate change research valuable to the industries that are the leading causes so we can stop fighting over it and just solve the problem already (what I've been trying to do for years, and am getting to make a dent in now with my dissertation... which I need to get back to writing after this break...) That's the kind of stuff that's going to be hardest to automate.
Image result for robot i want your job

My current teaching framework for my students is:
1.    Rote (facts/memorization)
2.    Processes (application of algorithms to complete a pre-defined task)
3.    Synthesis (creativity)

Most engineering classes in my experience (having taken A LOT) have primarily focused on #2, some get to #1, and hardly any get to #3. Exams are often administered with 4 questions. FOUR!!!! That's it! There's very little room for error! When I did my undergrad in Electrical Engineering, in one of the biggest deal courses that everyone had to take with one of the biggest deal professors, the class average was once a 12%. 12%!!!! Pathetic. Of course the prof was a super-genius in his field, but he was possibly the worst teacher I ever saw. EE courses were well known for having less than 50% class averages on the exams, they wore their own incompetence as a badge of honor. I went to this prof's office hours once (after I was done with the course), and got into a conversation with him, where he opened up a little, and asked me about multiple choice questions. It was weird, I was finally processing my dad dying my freshman year, stopped playing video games in my spare time, and instead was just going around trying to connect with people (anyone) like a human...




Anyway, he asked me some question about "all of the above" or "none of the above" or if students have a disposition for a certain letter, saying that he's tried multiple choice questions but only about a quarter of the students get the question right. In my typical 20-something charmingly-smart-ass tone, I asked him rhetorically, "you've got a multiple choice question with 4 answers, and over how many years you've had how many students get about 1/4 the right answer?" And then it clicked for him. No one knows what hell was going on in his class! He thanked me, and a few days later, a good friend of mine in his class (and now PhD EE from Stanford) asked me what the hell we talked about, because she said the prof did what Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions would call a "comprehension check" during lecture! No one answered. The room was silent. At one point in his class the prof literally took one of the students by the arm, and pulled them to the front of the class to explain what he just said. And all of a sudden, everyone was awake!

 
Me and the EE class valedictorian before Instagram filters.

As one of the senior profs at ASU said in the Prepping Future Faculty Course, "if you love teaching so much, why don't you learn how to be a good one?" LOL As I wrote in my first-draft teaching statement for a faculty job... which I still haven't heard back from btw -_-
"Often times when I speak with practicing senior engineers, they lament that fresh graduates only know how to solve problems that they have already done before; they do not understand principles or how to apply them. The way academia teaches engineering needs to catch up to the way other subjects are taught: experientially, or else it risks becoming irrelevant. Celebrity CEOs’ (without college degrees) companies' are increasingly hiring graduates from specialized engineering and programming trade schools. The quality and quantity of educational materials available free on the internet are tremendous. There is no point in lecturing undergraduate-level content at students in a classroom, nor a fair amount of graduate content either that is redundant with what is available outside of the classroom. The unique value of the classroom is to have an interactive experience with the students and the professor. This is the place where the instructor can provide corrective feedback for the students doing the work. The concept of the “flipped classroom” is new to engineering, not sports, arts, any kind of physical education, or business schools—and it is time that engineering schools catch up."



Seriously, do you think 1/3 of the starting line at ASU's football team makes it to the NFL because the  coach spends all of practice time lecturing out of the playbook, and then says to the players, okay, now go home and practice, and we'll see how well you understand how to play football when it's game time? Are you insane? Or better yet, if Michael Jordan's coach had berated him every time he missed a shot?


So, let's explore how to teach people to guess. We need to give them a LOT of opportunities to try and fail, not a handful, but dozens or hundreds. As in here's a ball, play for a day. We need to give them clear and simple facts first. Throw the ball in the hoop, dribble, basic rules of the game. Until we get a basic working vocabulary, pretty much nothing else matters. I didn't take the class personally, but had friends take a class with a proff who had a 1-page memorization exam, graded before the last day to drop the course, that had ALL the "rote" content / definitions she decided the students needed to know to be successful in the course. BAM, get it out of the way. Complete opposite of MOST professors who refuse to tell students what factual content they need to know to be successful in THEIR course. Next is practice drills for type #2 analytical content. Whether it be how to paint a line, pass a ball, solve for X, or identify which model/equation is right for the situation, students need to do it a lot a lot a lot of times. I hear China takes this to the extreme and has problems with creativity. But idk, never been. Jack Ma at least seems to be on the same page as me here. Last, for item #3 creativity, I think the key is, to my Michael Jordan joke, keeping morale high. Like learning to speak a new language (because that's effectively what we're doing here, we're not just converting text on a page into sounds out of our voice boxes like a machine) we want to formulate our own ideas and communicate them, and so we want to get students up to a simple working vocabulary as fast as possible so that they can do that. If we stop to correct them mid sentence for every accent or conjugation mistake, then they're never going to learn. That's not how the brain works. We encourage people to GUESS how to speak. Like I am GUESSING what words to put in what order right now to share my not fully formed idea -- that I'm basically just typing stream of consciousness style -- because this is how I get to be a better writer. And also draft my book for modernizing education systems. If I got hung up on writing "perfectly" all the time, then I'd never get any words on the page. Been guilty of that too. Uhg. As if there was some kind of perfect way to write anyway--which there is not. I'll just quote Mark Twain on this and say, give me more time and I'll write you a shorter letter. Guess how much thought and time I put into my mission statement.*

Seriously... I have never been more discouraged, by anyone ever, in life, than some of my engineering professors. Obviously not all of them, but a lot of engineering professors have been in my experience -- terrible coaches. According to Judy Swan, they're usually just repeating what they went through in their own poor experiences or in the "traditional publishing model".  They've falsely concluded that because they managed to "survive" a process that it was a good one, and that they should now perpetuate it, because that's the way it was done. As opposed to making things better for the next generation. Ironic. But don't get me wrong, I don't think this is an intentional thing, I think this is just a lack of knowledge issue combined with a poor incentive structure.

 
Apparently a lot of upper management seems to prefer to threaten to fire junior profs for not publishing, or fire them if a student complains about something, or whatever. I took prepping future faculty course at ASU, and we had the guy responsible for telling profs they didn't get tenure, tell us straight-up that in 15 years he'd only ever had to not award ONE prof tenure because his teaching reviews were so bad, and they just kept him around as a research prof anyway. WOW. I've talked to other profs and they all say the same thing, the incentives aren't there to be a good teacher--it's just a box-checking game. It can only hurt them, it can't help them--is at least their perception. So, I feel for y'all. Y'all been under a lot of pressure. I hear there's actually been a few profs who've committed suicide. Apparently after years of figuratively killing themselves for their job, they finally went all the way. What a sad life.
Image result for do your best forget the rest 


The thing is, that with big-data and AI/automation, the pressure is becoming less and less about working faster and faster. It's more and more about asking good questions and innovating. The machines will do more of the labor, we need to be able to give the machines the right input. Of course things still need to get done, and in a timely manner. But in terms of skills in the brain-powered workforce it's been changing for a while, and it's about to change a whole lot more. We need to know enough rote item #1 things to work with, but old-school memorization is obsolete thanks to the interwebs. Item #2, about plugging numbers into equations to get answers, is being increasingly automated with a click of a button. The computer can guess which equation and what data to look at. I got my first Academic Journal paper published because I derived an equation that wasn't in any book or any software. Now, AI bots are answering phone calls and tech support, they're writing in complete sentences, they're doing all our monkey-work for us. We need to get past the plug-and-chug and emphasize more developing intuitive skills. Fortunately for us, the rate of data available is increasing exponentially faster than the rate of computational processing power. So, a little less "problem solving", and  a little more "defining the problem". Because if we can't do different than a machine,  then we will be replaced by a machine. So stop thinking like a machine, and start guessing what the next problem is to solve.
Image result for robot i want your job
If only they could get along, they'd be such a great team.



*Funny tangent - Brad Allenby & his Earth Systems Engineering Management class at ASU made me question the whole thing and go into an existential crisis for a bit over the word "sustainability". His point was basically that the term "sustainability" has been hijacked by eco-socialists/anti-capitalists, and that people in "industry" do "sustainability" work all the time, but that "you can't call it that." Uhg. Does everything have to be about politics? THAT is a deeply Socratic conversation, but whatever.... I've got to get things done. And I've got my own working definitions that works for me for now. I'll save the nitpicking semantics for the next time I'm involved in a regulatory/law-making process. And I'm sure I'll tweak my mission statement again before I die, but in the meantime, it works.

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