Category Archives: education

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My 6th year as an undergrad made me who I am today.

A couple of years ago I attended a graduation party for one of the most amazing students I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. He was wearing a t-shirt that said:

“College – the best 7 years of my life!”

I kidded him about it because I knew that he had not finished in the typical(?) four years and he admitted that it had indeed been seven. Not only that someone gave him the shirt his freshman year.

It made me think back to the end of August 1994 when I was about to begin my 6th year enrolled as an undergraduate engineering student.

I had plenty of excuses and rationalizations for the fact that I wasn’t done but none of them mattered what mattered was that I had no intention of asking my parents for money to pay for this year – a year that should not be – and that I had used up all of the money I made during year four to pay for year five. (I took year four “off” and worked full time.)

With almost no cash and a full course load for two more semesters staring me in the face I signed up for the payment plan offered at the bursar’s office and got a full time job driving a forklift in a warehouse attached to a plastic injection molding company. This was my first experience working directly for a manufacturing company and it was an eye opening experience.

It was also a tiring experience you see I was still taking a full course load and was working second shift five days a week plus taking all the weekend overtime they would give me. Amazingly enough I did not fail all of the classes I took that semester, but I failed enough of them to know that I needed a better plan for the spring.

I still use some of the credit cards I applied for that winter and finished the spring semester passing 12 classes with all As and Bs and almost $35,000 in credit card debit that I was very adept at moving from card to card in rotation.

In one sense, looking back, I can see that I manufactured both my failure that first semester and my success the second. During the first semester I misused my resources my time and my focus. One of the only classes I passed that semester was a class I now teach at that same university and I often wonder if the C that I got was actually a gift from the instructor.

In the spring of 1995 on the other hand success was my only acceptable result and I was able to focus on the things required to pass my classes and manufacture my success.

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Can we make learning videos instead of teaching videos?

I can’t say I’m part of the ME Generation, and with that said, or rather not said, I can say that when I want to know something, unless I’m standing next to someone I’m pretty sure knows the answer, the first thing I do is Google it.  Then I look for a video (preferred) or a web page that explains it to me.  I’m forty three years old, or as I like to call it thirty-thirteen years old.  My generation literally grew up with computers.  I remember the first PCs.  I remember the launch of Macintosh.  I was there when our rich college friends first got PCs with color monitors and the rest of us reminded them that green is a color too.

Now as an engineering professor at a world renowned university my colleges and I regularly lament the fact that our students don’t do the reading and unless we somehow make it required they are likely to skip class in droves. I can tell you emphatically that that it is not their fault!  If we as faculty cannot engage them we deserve to be talking to an empty room and we are doing them and extremely expensive disservice.

So how do we engage them?  I’ve tried things like:

  • in class quizzes,
  • pre-lecture quizzes based on the reading,
  • post-lecture where the answers were only covered in lecture, not in the reading…
None of those things have really seemed to work for and I think it’s for the same reason that although I read almost continuously in high school, on the bus to school, on the bus back from school sitting in bed at night, sitting in the back of the class room,  I don’t think I ever finished one of the books assigned by my English teachers.

What does seem to work is to interact with them, to have a conversation, to ask questions and pull the answers out of them, to give them ownership of he class and its direction and to act as a guide on a journey of learning.  This can be hard to do as you might imagine with a lecture hall full of introverted engineering students.  I’ve been known to resort to throwing candy to (at) students who participate in my ongoing conversation and I’ve made it a habit of showing at least one YouTube video or clip in each class.  It’s these videos that I think are both part of the solution to the problem of engagement and part of the problem itself.

I’ve been using video as a teaching tool for as long as I’ve been teaching, and when I tell my class that they have to watch “my teaching video” —  of me talking about something — if they want to know — what I want them to learn — about that something; it doesn’t matter if the video is any good, I have a captive audience.  This has lead me to “produce” a few good videos and a lot of less good, even bad, videos.

A bad video is much much worse than a bad lecture.  I know from experience that some students will be embarrassed to fall asleep or even zone out in class but will think nothing of falling asleep in front of YouTube or more likely the’ll click on a more interesting video.
A good video can be much better than a good lecture the students can refer back to it they can share it with others they can help spread that knowledge.  A good video is a learning video not a teaching video.

Look for our new learning videos in May