Can we automate education?

A few years ago I gave a tour of labs to one of the executives at MasterCam and when we talked about the system we’ve developed at WPI to help our students learn to use CNC Machine tools to make the parts they’ve desigened he accused me (in a good way) of having “automated education.”. This article published by SME talks a little bit about that.

Putting Excited Novices in Charge Works for WPI

What do you do when the student is more correct than you are? | If everyone else is cheating, is it wrong?

There is a famous video on the internet of a professor accusing most of his class of cheating on an exam. I’ve watched the video and thought “If those students weren’t such “#%^&%$$%^&%$$ jerks” this would have never happened!

Then it happened to me, today. The following email was what I sent to the student who helped me figure it out.

<<Student’s Name>>

Thanks for emailing. Although I haven’t calculated grades, since not all of the assignments are due yet, I have graded all of your assignments (except the extra credit) and I can tell you that you will get <<students grade>> in the class.

Your emails did prompt me to re-evaluate the syllabus, and the grading policies on all of the quizzes though. The syllabus clearly states that, the only reason that you are to use a second attempt on any assignment is if you inadvertently submitted the assignment when you meant to save it. In my experience this happens to at least two students on every assignment. The reason for the second attempt is so that those people don’t have to wait for someone to notice they asked for an new attempt and then reset the quiz for them.

Since I believed that everyone understood this rule, ( I’ve discussed it several times in lecture, and the first homework asked you if you had read the syllabus (everyone answered yes,)) I thought it was amazing that you would admit to cheating when asking for special consideration of your grade

So I did a statistical analysis of the entire class.

I found that 75% of the class used a 2nd attempt at least once, and that the average student used a 2nd attempt on over 50% of the quizzes!

When most of the class does something wrong I have to believe it is my fault , not theirs.

This evening, I’ve had in depth conversations with some of my colleagues and mentors, and come to the conclusion that the initial policy was flawed in several ways:

  • It is almost impossible to enforce.
  • It is possible to start a 2nd attempt when you thought you were just going back to look at the 1st (I have watched a student do it when they were asking me a question…)
  • It assumes that quizzes and tests are not learning experiences.
  • It does not allow people who want to improve to learn from their mistakes immediatly.
  • And finally, it is almost impossible to enforce. (To enforce the rule, I have to assume that I know what you were thinking at the moment you clicked a button on your mouse… If I could do that I would be an internet billionaire!)

I am amending the syllabus for this class, so that no one can be penalized for using a 2nd attempt, and will update the quizzes to retain the highest grade from the two. For future classes I plan to allow more than two attempts and to use large question banks so that no two attempts are exactly the same…

Thank you very much for your feedback (even if it was inadvertent,) and I hope that I will see you in another class some day.


professor Torbjorn Bergstrom —
Operations Manager–WPI Manufacturing Laboratories
Phone: 508 208 3024
Schedule a Meeting or a Phone Call


Can you still make good decisions when deadlines are flying at you.

In April of 2011 while driving to work I got a phone call from my department head. It was pretty uncommon and I was curious, and a little apprehensive when I answered. He asked me if I had heard what happened at Yale the night before. I said no, He explained. A student had been killed in an accident in one of their machine shops. After giving me the details as he knew them, he asked me how we could make sure that it never happened at WPI.

My initial response was defensive and I said “We have good policies,” but even as I thought it, before the words even cleared my lips, I knew that Yale had to have good policies too. The real question we needed to answer was how do we know that the students / staff / visitors will obey the policies.  And, what can we do to ensure that they do.

We have thought alot about this question over the years and have updated policies and made a significant effort to understand how to influence people to make good decisions. Every year as we get close to important deadlines for graduation we see evidence of bad decision making by some people, and observe others to consistently make good decisions. Pareto’s Law and a corelary that I propose here may explain this phenomenon entirely and may in fact help save lives in the future.

Pareto with his peas has managed to change the thoughts and expectations of people throughout the world and through the centuries. I wonder if there has been a bestselling business book in the last 20 years that didn’t mention Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 rule as many have come to know it.

Now, of course,  we know that he didn’t create the principle, he observed the phenomenon and reported on it.

Over the last 30 years as an engineer, scientist, and now an educator I’ve observed a phenomenon that may well be a corollary to Pareto’s Principle. I’ve observed myself, my colleagues, and my students, and I’ve told many of you about this, already, as the idea formed in my mind over the years.

80/20 Project Work

First we can all agree, I think, that when we take on a new project the farther away, in time, the deadline is, the less motivation we have to complete the project immediately. I think even whether we call it the 80/20 Rule or not, we know in our hearts that we will do 80% of the required work in 20% of the available time so there is no real need for that motivation in the beginning. I’m not talking about what we should do. I’m talking about what we tend to do. I’ve observed plenty of exceptions, usually resulting in outstanding work.

Now as the deadline gets closer day by day the rule still applies. Our motivation does creep up slowly but we still have plenty of time. eventually we reach what Malcolm Gladwell might call a tipping point in motivation and it begins to grow exponentially and we feel like the deadline is flying at us at supersonic speed. This is when we get our ass in gear and we really get to work.

Apparent Skill

We all know about potential energy. We talk about chemical potential energy everytime we count calories. And anyone who had Physics I can explain kinetic potential energy. I say we also have potential skills. These are skills that we still have time to acquire. I call this set of potential skills that we have our Apparent Skill or Apparent Skill Level. It’s a combination of the things we already know (the skills we have) and the things we still have time to learn before we need to use them to complete the project.

Let’s say our project is to drive from Boston to LA  and we have 6 years to complete the project. We have the Apparent Skill to complete this task even if we are 11 years old and have never driven a car because we still have time to learn. If we have 6 months to complete the project we can still pull it off if we are old enough to get a license. With 6 weeks to pull off the project we could probably learn to drive in time, but we would need to dedicate a lot of time to doing it and the risk would go up.  Inexperienced drivers are more likely to make mistakes, more likely to have accidents, more likely to get hurt, and more likely to die.  At six days out if we still don’t know how to drive it would be a stupid decision for us to try to learn “along the way” even though it would be possible. At 6 years out our Apparent Skill was 100% of that needed. At 6 days out our Apparent Skill is zero for all intents and purposes.

Remember our Apparent Skill Level includes the things we know how to do (our current skills,) and the skills we can acquire (the things we can learn.)  Since learning takes a finite amount of time, apparent skill falls off as the deadline approaches, unless we are proactively learning along the way.

Bad Decisions

If we plot apparent skill and motivation on the same time scale we see that the two lines cross at some point close to the deadline.  I call this the point of desperation. Motivation has becomes desperation at this point and this is the time when we make bad decisions. It’s when we decide we can learn to drive on the way to LA. It’s the point where we decide to stay up all night to finish, when we know we need to be sharp and make good decisions in the morning. It’s the time we decide to work alone in the lab even though we know that is against the rules and unsafe.

In the past 30 years of observing this phenomenon I’ve made my share of bad decisions, and I’ve seen, and and seen the evidence of,  so many more.  I’ve also learned that it is possible to change the equation that defines apparent skill. It’s possible to maintain the apparent skill required to complete projects even as the deadlines are flying at you. It’s even possible to make good decisions after you have crossed the desperation point.

Making Good Decisions

The best way to avoid the desperation point of course is to never get there. To acquire the skills and complete the project before the deadline arrives. Acquiring the skills and taking action to complete the project early on will keep your Apparent Skill Level curve from declining.

But let’s face it, if we wait to the last minute to finish our projects, we probably will wait to learn too. When this is the case, consider the possibility of moving the deadline. People hardly ever die on the drop dead date for a project. Think up a good excuse and talk to the customer (the person who set the deadline.) Even better than a good excuse, tell them the truth, some thing like: “I screwed up, and didn’t realize how much time I would need to invest to complete this project so I waited too long to start, and now cannot complete it on time without sacrificing safety, and or, quality.” Own the mistake and ask them to cut you some slack.

If that doesn’t work, or if you are too afraid to talk to the customer, ask for some help. Even if you cannot meet the deadline maybe you know someone who can help. If you don’t know someone who can help, find them. If they won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart they might do it for cash, the promise of a returned favor, or possibly as sixpack.

And, if all else fails, accept the fact that your not gonna make it. Accept the fact that the deadline is going to wiz past with a zinging sound. Own up to it, and move on (with a little more experience.) There is no true value in the bad decisions you might make and there can be significant risk to yourself and others.  It was just a few years ago that, Michele Dufault died while working on a project in one of her campus labs, I don’t know if she was rushing to meet a deadline or not, but she was working alone, in a lab, late at night, and these are the kind of things we do when we are rushing to complete deadlines. (

Please, please, please, if the deadline is tomorrow or if it’s six years away, stop and think for a second.  If your at the edge of your knowledge, ask for help. If there’s not enough time to finish, ask for an extension. If you think you need to stay up all night to finish, then there is not enough time to finish safely…

Making good decisions usually only takes a short pause.



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.

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