On college costs, and standards

November 4, 2013 Leave a comment

This business about the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is so polarizing as to make your head spin.  It’s a brilliant example of the difference between intention vs. policy, idea vs. implementation, and goal vs. mechanism.  Politicized beyond belief (although since when has public K-12 education not been politicized), the CCSSI is, at its core (ahem), an intentional attempt to identify the kinds of skills and abilities students need in the modern world.

I’m not going to wade into the political elements of the debate, or the apparent deficiencies in the standards model itself, but I am quite fascinated by how the CCSSI views and expresses (implicitly and explicitly) what it thinks higher education is all about.  There’s an emergent view of higher education’s “job”, and I suppose you can only evaluate whether we are “doing our job” if we can all agree on what that job is.  Educating the masses?  Elite education for the few?  Create new knowledge through research? Develop independent thinking skills in our students?  Create entrepreneurs?  Generate wealth?  Service learning?  There’s many more possibilities here…

Read more…


Your value online…

October 14, 2013 2 comments

The idea of a digital identity has emerged over the past few years as a crucial part of our “real” identity.  We’ve got ubiquitous social media, we are constantly connected, and we have a variety of profiles (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) that we use for different purposes.  Most of us do not take a deliberate approach to curating our digital identity, and we don’t really have a strategy for presenting a coherent package of information that expresses a narrative about us in a clear way.  Partly, this is due to the tools that we use:  we use Twitter for short-burst social purposes, while Facebook is both social and (?) more durable, and LinkedIn is the FB for grown-ups looking at a professional network.  Then there’s Instagram and Tumblr and a wide range of other choices.  Moreover, you can now link all these things together, so that each of my tweets immediately appears in my FB timeline.

So, social media has been on my mind lately, quite a bit, as we try to figure out how to leverage our seemingly infinite connectivity in the service of learning and connecting.  Social media means more than Facebook;  it means using the ubiquity of the web to connect, to share, to inform, to consume, and to transmit information.  This includes things like Twitter, but is also includes lots of sharing sites like YouTube.  The point here is that there is simply too much potential in this form of communication to ignore it, or to hope it goes away.  It may not be Facebook, which jumped the shark a few years ago.  But, it will be something.

But there are consequences to the proliferation of social media, and here’s one which has gained alot more attention in the past year or so: your online reputation.  There are lots of stories out there about people leveraging YouTube as a resume circulation tool (remember this guy?), and finding a job through your social network.  But there’s more to the story, and it starts when a prospective employer checks you out on Facebook.  Sure, you’re in a few tagged photos, maybe at homecoming tailgate, and next thing you know, you’re not offered the job.

This sort of thing generally falls into the category of managing your online reputation, and it’s more important than many people think it is.  Take this recent blog post:  it starts by asking about whether to put your Twitter handle on your resume, and ends with the question “what’s your social capital”?

The question here is:  how can higher education help students burnish their online reputation and harvest their own social capital?  What experiences (curricular or otherwise) can we put into place which give students the opportunity to really shape a positive and influential online identity?  In addition to a curriculum portfolio of work, do students need to generate an e-folio summarizing their online writings and activities?

In higher education, we generally ignore this question altogether.  We have other, better things to do than this.  Like teach students in much more traditional ways.  But I do think the broader conversation of how to foster in students an awareness of, and interest in, their online reputation is important.  Students can really leverage a positive reputation as evidence of the “real them”–by this I simply mean the student as an individual, going about their daily lives.  Their online presence can portray them as helpful, collaborative, and wise…or it can portray them as arrogant, unhelpful, and unlikeable.  I think we have both an opportunity and an obligation to help students form an online persona which is both genuine (i.e., really is a true reflection of their values) and helpful in their future prospects.  This is easier said than done, and I will revisit this topic in the future with more specific ideas of how we in higher ed can help.

For now, all I can say is I am fascinated by the potential of badges and other micro credentials, instead of measuring student achievement using the unit of “the class” or the “credit hour”.  We can help students understand the importance of curating their online identity, and we can help them burnish it, by our actions and by considering innovative ways to recognize student achievements.  I’m thinking alot about this and plan to use this space as a sandbox to explore some ideas.  Stay tuned.

What’s Coming for Higher Ed

September 10, 2013 Leave a comment

I think quite alot about how our current approach to engineering higher education does, or does not, make sense.  And how it is likely to change in response to prevailing trends in pedagogical thought, student/parent demands and expectations, workforce needs, etc.  Academic institutions move quite slowly, and often this is both appropriate and a true strength of institutions.  Dare I quote Jefferson:  “In matters of style, swim with the current;  in matters of principle, stand like a rock”.  And institutions of higher education really ought to stand on principle most of the time.  But I’d hardly characterize these trends as mere fashion, matters of style or preference.  I think these really are important factors that will change the way higher education works and how we, as faculty, go about our business.  Some ideas:

Students Want an Experience, Not a Curriculum. My job as the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs has taught me that students and their families view the college experience holistically, with the actual courses taken for the degree (the “curriculum”) being only one part of their decision-making process. Equally important considerations are other high-impact experiences, including study abroad, internships, and undergraduate research. Many institutions and faculty have yet to catch up with this experiential view of engineering education. My vision for engineering education in this area is that experiential learning will become an important and recognized role for faculty in the future, and one that differentiates the best institutions from the rest.

Information is Free, Knowledge is Expensive. The recent rise of MOOCs has taught us that basing education on transmittal of information is both cheap and scalable, and can be an asset for students around the world. But knowledge is something more elusive and represents a critical schema formation process for students that can be further developed via personal mentorship. Students will continue to choose a residential educational experience because of personal access to world-class expertise on the faculty. The ability to personally interact and form a relationship with a faculty expert will continue to be a primary academic draw for students. This personal relationship simply does not develop in large lecture halls. My vision for engineering education in this area is for an environment in which these personal interactions are encouraged, recognized, and rewarded for faculty, and transformative for students.

Maker Culture Spawns Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The past several years have seen dramatic decreases in complexity and expertise required to make things. Multimedia authoring tools, for example, are widespread, easy to use, and cheap. 3D printing technologies are available via FabLabs (including one at my current institution), easy to use, and fast. Although currently expensive, their price will continue to fall in the coming years. App development culture, hack-a-thons, and entrepreneurship competitions are symptoms of a broader cultural resurgence of actually making things. Students have high aspirations, great ideas, infinite energy, and resourcefulness beyond measure. Engineering education cannot ignore this cultural trend, for it is a crippling missed opportunity if we do. My vision for engineering education in this area is for institutions to embrace this culture, provide opportunities for students to couple “making” into the academic experience, and empower students to express their entrepreneurial spirit.

Diversity is Crucial, and Grit is the New IQ. Engineering as a field has had a historical diversity problem, and not only in dimensions like race or gender. In a globally-connected world, diversity is crucial in promoting an environment that values the “full spectrum of human attributes, perspectives, and disciplines.” (From the University of Virginia Commitment to Diversity). In addition to the usual measures of diversity, we must also consider intellectual diversity. Recent research illustrates that grit, perseverance, character, determination, creativity, resilience, and resourcefulness are crucial factors for success in academics and life, and these attributes are typically not considered next to the typical “good in math and science” profile of engineering students. Engineering education has a special role to play here in fostering development of these non-cognitive skills in our students by challenging them with complex, unconventional, ill-posed problems. My vision for engineering education in this area is for programs to foster diversity-rich environments, and challenge students to draw upon all that diversity–including the rich variety of non-cognitive skills–to solve real, challenging, ill-posed problems.

Data, Data Everywhere. This is an exciting time in so many domains because of the confluence of three factors that make “data” crucial to the future of engineering education, and to everything else. First, we have access to data like never before. Second, we have data modeling and analysis tools that are mature, powerful, and reasonably easy to use. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we now live in a data culture, one that values analytics and respects sober, objective analysis. This is clearly the Moneyball era, and higher education institutions now have all the ingredients for intelligent use of their own data to make good decisions about their performance as organizations. Moreover, for engineers and technical people across industries, data analysis is a new, crucial, marketable brand of technical literacy. My vision for engineering education in this area is for engineering education to take the lead in both educational and research programs that ensure every engineering graduate understands (at least) the fundamentals of data modeling and analysis, and can apply them to important problems in their discipline.

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How Soccer Explains Human Nature

Last summer at IAD airport, waiting for my son to depart to visit his grandparents, I picked up How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer.  This little book connects the institution of Soccer, the capital-S soccer, to observations of culture, economics, religion and a whole host of other themes.  Foer explores connections to gambling and the mafia, religious tensions, and of course racism (which remains world Soccer’s biggest enemy, I’d say).  He explores how history and culture have shaped the identities of, say, Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, and how their supporters either implicitly or explicitly embrace that historical context.  And how and why Tottenham in England is historically the “jewish” club, and what it means today.  Some of the most interesting observations revolve around the cultural and political environments in individual countries, and how those prevailing forces impact the style of Soccer played in either the domestic leagues or by the national team.   Grow up in a totalitarian regime?  You probably play well-defined, disciplined, positional Soccer, and the manager pulls the strings on strategy and preparation.  You give your best to the team, you are not the central focus of the team;  you humbly play your role to make the team stronger.  Grow up in a more nebulous political regime with a rich and vibrant culture, say, Brazil?  Then you probably play a style of Soccer the embraces individual creativity and flair, ambition and aggression, you control the ball at your feet with exquisite skill and calmness, and you play somewhat on the razor’s edge between fearless confidence and reckless risk-taking.  And don’t even get me started on Total Football

Then this past summer, I re-read the brilliant, laugh-until-you-cry Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby.  I had read Fever Pitch maybe 8 or 10 years ago when my two boys were very young.  And since Fever Pitch is at least in part a story of father and son, and largely about a coming of age that almost never happens for Hornby, the book didn’t resonate with me the same way it does now that my boys are older and have their own personalities**.  Nonetheless, Fever Pitch is about how a team’s supporters define the identities of the clubs they support.  This is not a book about capital-S Soccer (unless you think, perhaps as Hornby does, that Arsenal are the perfect metaphor for what Soccer is), rather it’s about little-s soccer and how this one particular soccer club has come to define one man’s life, his obsession, in fact his view of the world.  Hornby is a humorist, after all, so yes the book is deeply funny and parts are laugh-til-you-cry.  But the frailties of human nature exposed by the bizarre, almost unbelievable choices he makes about how and when to support his club–it’s an addiction, after all–make you cry-til-you-laugh.  Missing a dear friend’s birthday party to listen to an away game on the radio?  How does this man sort out his priorities around soccer, family, friends, and the basic expectations and social/cultural norms that most people respond to?  And whatever you do, don’t equate the book to this.

These two books, together, provide a multi-scale view of how soccer, and Soccer, really do explain the world and human nature.  Foer presents a pretty compelling organizing principle for the macrocosm of sport, culture, identity, and membership in a community.  That community may indeed be the fans at the Stretford End at Old Trafford, the Serbian mafia, or the Chelsea Headhunters, but nonetheless, Soccer provides a framework of mutually-understood expectations its community.  Manchester United will win.  Newcastle will be the (more or less) lovable underdog.  Real Madrid are the blue blood team.  Cruz Azul supporters are the common working man.  And the macrocosmic view is reinforced when we realize that all these clubs are intense, successful global brands (I happen to be wearing my 40th anniversary commemorative May 29, 1968 [for winning the European cup] blue Manchester United jersey as I write this), there is an intense local culture around the club.

Hornby’s view of the world makes an American cock her head sideways, contorted as if driving by the worst traffic accident you’ve ever passed on the highway, because of its extremeness.  The devotion of supporters like Hornby is at once admirable, lovable, crazy, insane, and worthy of both deep praise and deep sympathy.  It is the razor’s edge between love and insanity.  What can you say to a man inflicted with such a deep personality defect that so many people in his community want to share?  And where does this devotion come from?  Supporters like this exist in other sports, but not on the scale of soccer and they are often the objects of derision–in a socially-acceptable way.  Soccer supporters are, because of the culture of soccer and the cultural contexts in which these fans live, socially accepted, and even celebrated, as passionate, devoted, lifelong, I-bleed-(insert your colors here), and so are my kids, as will their kids, and theirs, and so on.  This book could not be about baseball (although again, they’ve tried), or American football, or NBA basketball.  It just wouldn’t be credible.  But about soccer?  Sure, of course, what’s unusual about that?

Both Soccer and soccer continue to fascinate me for all these reasons.  But there’s even a more microcosmic view that’s compelling as well.  The view between the whistles of a single game:  the emotion, the building and relieving of pressure, the ebb and flow and continuous action that unfolds like a great drama–smoothly and with a pace and rhythm that mimics life–rather than the jumps and starts of discrete-action-sports like baseball and American football.  Watching Manchester United play in Europe (especially a tight, high-stakes match) is emotionally exhausting in a way that baseball could never be.  Viewing Man Utd at Sunderland on the last day of the 2012 season (they won, 1-0) on TV while watching online Man City beat QPR 3-2 to win the title on goal differential, well that was almost too much to take.  I was sitting in my media room, Sunday morning with some friends, hanging on every pass, every shot, every innocuous throw in, dividing my attention between the big screen for Man Utd and my small computer screen for Man City (and of course that, in itself, is a metaphor for fan-dom).  QPR were a man down–a man down!–and Man City scored twice in injury time to take the title.  Heartbreaking.  Emotionally draining.  And despite the outcome, a fabulous way to spend a sunny May morning.

** Incidentally, probably my favorite book about fathers and sons is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Not laugh-til-you-cry, more like cry-til-you-puke in its depth of emotion.  A very different kind of book, and somewhat polarizing, but I find it to be a small classic.

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A bit more on student outcomes

Periodically I’ve written about success of today’s student and what faculty can do to support them. I’ve got a bit more data that muddies the waters even more.  First let’s look at a new set of GPA data.  The figure at left shows a plot of final at-graduation GPA vs. first semester GPA for 442 graduates in a recent academic year, all of whom started with us in the fall, and graduated in the spring 4 years later.  We have more graduates than this on an annual basis, but this data does not include transfer students (for whom we don’t have a first-semester GPA), or students who didn’t graduate in 8 semesters.

Final at-graduation GPA vs first semester GPA

Final at-graduation GPA vs first semester GPA

The story is tells is rather astounding.  First, the correlation is remarkably strong.  There appear to be very few true outliers in the data, with most of the data points hugging the best fit linear model (the red line) reasonably well.  The best fit line essentially says that if you finished your first semester in the vicinity of the average GPA of the group (which was about 3.15), you probably finished right around 3.15.  And if you finished your first semester with something like a 4.0, then you probably came back to the pack a bit and finished your career with a GPA a bit lower than 4.0.  And if you finished your first semester with a below-average GPA, say around 2.5, you probably graduated with a GPA slightly higher than that.  This sort of thing is probably to be expected, because it’s really hard to maintain a perfect or near-perfect GPA record throughout your career. Similarly, it’s hard for academically very talented students to continuously under-perform throughout their career.  To be sure, students do both (maintain either their 2.0 or 4.0), but it’s not easy and it’s fairly uncommon.

Histogram of (final GPA - first semester GPA)

Histogram of (final GPA – first semester GPA)

The figure at right shows the same data, only this time expressed as a histogram.  About 60% of students graduate with a final GPA within the interval (-0.25 to +0.5) points of their first semester GPA.  Among all the available predictors of overall, global academic performance, first semester GPA is a staggeringly good one.  Only about 22% of students graduate with a GPA that is appreciably (defined as more than 0.25 points) above their first semester GPA.  Moreover, less than 5% of students graduate with a final GPA more than 0.75 points higher than their first semester GPA.

The histogram data also shows that it is very difficult, and very uncommon, for students to make drastic changes in their academic performance , and we can precipitate a hypothesis about what we see.

Let’s establish a baseline profile of students who enter UVA:

  • they have generally been academically successful in every academic environment they’ve experienced
  • they have rarely if ever had to ask for help in their academic setting
  • they have had extraordinary support from their families in their academic pursuits
  • they have managed their total experience (academic + work + volunteering + athletics + …) very effectively and have been highly scheduled throughout their teen years

This is obviously a composite of what our students look like, and of course individuals vary quite a bit from this general picture.  But this is a fair characterization of our population as a whole, especially the part about academic performance and asking for academic help.

The right side of the histogram includes students who improved their GPA throughout their career, and there are clearly more of them than there are students whose GPA declined.

Then the hypothesis about why it’s so difficult for students to make very large changes in their academic performance that follows from this baseline description is:

  • Transition issues:  The right side of the histogram includes students who improved their GPA throughout their career, and there are clearly more of them than there are students whose GPA declined.  It is well established that students often struggle when they transition to a new academic environment, especially one that is quite different from their previous environment.  Students who struggle in their first semester, but who have been completely successful previously, often have the self-efficacy to identify critical changes they need to make (and of course to actually make them) so that their academic performance improves.
  • Success issues: In the high-expectations environment of the engineering school, it is really difficult to maintain a 4.0 average across 8 semesters.  It’s a very intuitive argument that most students who start with a 4.0 will migrate a little bit back to the pack as time goes on.
  • Extrinsic issues:  But the “success” argument does not capture the students whose performance changes drastically, negatively throughout their career.   In many cases, students experience unfortunate extrinsic factors that impact their performance.  I believe the “classics” are only occasionally true:  the student pledged a fraternity or sorority, he/she spent too much time partying, he/she got involved in too many extra-curriculars.  Instead, I believe that students who see this substantial decline face all sorts of non-academic factors such as relationship problems, family problems, mid-college crises about their chosen career path, and the general “grass is always greener” syndrome that can challenge the confidence of students who have always had confidence to spare.

My contention is that the shape of the data can be explained largely by non-academic, and in fact non-cognitive, factors rather than resorting to arguments about academic competencies.  It’s students who have the self-efficacy to make good decisions, make academic and personal adjustments if they are not getting the results they want, and who generally have a level of (yes, here’s that word) grit that ensures that they will find a way to succeed.

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The New, New Math (no, this time, really…)

June 15, 2013 1 comment

Last night, two delightfully clean-cut college students came to my door.  Their “Aggies” license plate and A&M visors let me know that this was the outfit who recently incited a scare in the local neighborhoods because they have out of state plates and are looking for houses with small children.  Maybe not the best opening line to a sales pitch.  I didn’t catch the name of the product they were selling, but it was some combination of actual books and website access, and somehow these two things were supposed to work together to improve student reading, especially for young kids.  It was never quite clear how the system worked, and the details are not exceptionally important.  What’s interesting about this situation is:

  • the website access was promised to add value (“it’s fun, kids love learning online…”)
  • the books seemed like, well, books (of which I have a house full)
  • this was a cold-call sales job

It’s almost as if there’s something magic about having a supporting website that makes this sort of thing (at least in the eyes of the sellers) attractive, effective, or worth the money.

My son just finished third grade in a local school, and throughout this school year we received the following proclamations about how he would be learning math this year (note: I am intentionally not linking to any of these).

  • Some time in the fall, my son’s math teacher was “pleased to tell [us] that we will be using a website called IXL in our classroom this year.”  The letter promises that in addition to “making math practice exciting, IXL is designed to help your child learn at his or her own pace.”  A laudable goal, to be sure.  The letter closes by asking parents to “encourage your son or daughter to use IXL daily.”  Well, okay, maybe.
  • On Jan. 29, we received another nice letter about using XtraMath to “increase speed and accuracy in arithmetic”.  Yes, well, okay, speed might be important, accuracy is certainly important, and so yes, right, we can have our child “spend a few minutes each day practicing math on the computer.”  Got it.
  • On Feb. 7, we received another letter, this one stating that students in this math teacher’s class “have an opportunity to work with an exciting new math product.  ExploreLearning Reflex is an online, game-based program that helps students build fast and effortless recall of math facts.”  Hmm.  Okay, well, yes, I’d like my son to have fast and effortless recall, but the Jan. 29 letter told me that XtraMath was going to increase his speed and accuracy too. So I am not sure what to do here.
  • Throughout the entire school year, the class was using something call ST Math.  ST stands for “spatial-temporal”, and the premise of ST math is that students are introduced to a math problem visually first, then using more traditional mathematical symbols.  The visual narrative is driven by the adorable (ahem…) penguin Jiji.  Students essentially help Jiji solve math puzzles so that whatever obstacles are in Jiji’s way can be removed.  The obstacles represent the visual part of the math problem.

I’m not complaining about any one of these products in particular.  In fact, ST Math in particular claims to have a strong basis in research, and the group at UC Irvine who created the system has some scholarship available to substantiate their claims about how the system supports achievement on standardized tests.  Whatever.  And apparently it costs on the order of $100 per students per year.  Yikes.

What is shocking and distressing is this hodgepodge of introduced-then-quickly-forgotten websites that promise learning, sharpening of skills, and (!) fun.  Other than ST math, which really permeated the whole school year, I have never heard of the other three again.  And it might be worth noting that my son, whom I consider to be a very visual guy with a really good talent for visual/spatial mapping, hated, really abhorred ST math.  He thought the whole storyline with the penguin was silly, he thought the adaptivity was weak (in the sense that the questions didn’t adapt fast enough, and he had to endure too many questions on the same topics), and he generally felt like it was not an effective tool for him to learn math.  Call them learning styles, or learning preferences, or whatever you want, but the point is that not everyone learns the same way, and this way didn’t work for him.

I’ve learned a lot about the enterprise of education over the past few years of public schools.  Public schools have it rough.  The range of preparation of students entering the system, the demands of NCLB and standardized testing, the differential commitment of parents to the school and its mission, the constant sense that resources are not spent wisely, on the “right” things.  Teachers are overworked and underpaid.  The burnout rate is high, and teacher turnover is costly (This is astonishing:  “The total cost of turnover in the Chicago Public Schools is estimated to be over $86M per year.”  And the cost of a single teacher leaving the system is on the order of $17,000.  In Chicago, there are around 23,000 teachers, and this data means that around 4,800 of them [20%] turnover in a given year.).  There’s no doubt that teachers deserve more love, more professional development, more efforts at retention and general job satisfaction, and more respect from the public.

But I am an online skeptic, a MOOC skeptic, unlike some others.  And I make constructive use technology within my pedagogy as much as anyone.  But I feel strong dismay at the notion that students are sophisticated enough in their understanding of how they learn to be able to make good judgments about how to productively engage with these technologies.  Yes, perhaps the role of the teacher is changing to something more like a coach or mentor.  I get that, and I generally like the idea.  But the teacher plays a central role;  not as gatekeeper of information, but also not as an incidental part of the educational process either.  The teacher must be directly involved in the student’s experience, and here’s what I think are the important things teachers can do:

  • motivate students, and using their knowledge of a student’s personality and personal circumstance to tap into their desire to succeed
  • challenge students, by pushing them to meet and even exceed their own expectations
  • inspire students, by being the positive role model for learning that a computer could probably never be
  • engage students in the critical thinking and the memorable and crucial give-and-take of classroom discussions, whether about arts, literature, or even math

This is not intended to be a polemic attack on public schools, or teachers, or parents, or students.  It is, however, a strong lament about the current state of technology in education, especially K-12 education.  I am concerned, more than ever, that just because technology is ubiquitous, people will use it for all sorts of things that it isn’t ready to be used for.  And just because technology is all around, it is perceived to be disposal–or worse yet, interchangeable.  The three websites I never heard about again are perfect examples of a technology pop culture:  pretty, shiny, disposable, and nobody will remember them even a year from now.

What Should Teachers Do, Part 1?

March 25, 2013 1 comment

The past few years have seen exciting and inspirational ideas emerging from a variety of sources, all focused on how to make the next generation of Americans productive, happy, efficient, insightful, innovative.  In short, the next great generation of world leaders.  I’ve read a number of books that talk about education writ large, meaning K-12 and higher ed, and in fact life long learning.  The similarities of these books with each other are fairly striking, and they are largely getting at many of the same topics from different angles.  But there are differences too.  Let’s look at some of the recent books on my bookshelf and see what advice they give us.

The Global Achievement Gap, by Tony Wagner (2008).  Tony Wagner is co-Director of the Change Leadership Group in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and has been a leading voice in education policy and practice for quite some time.  Despite the ominous subtitle (“Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children needs–and what we can do about it”), the book presents a compelling prescription for what the problem is.  Wagner’s “7 Survival Skills for Teens Today” hit on the key habits of mind that emergent adults need to thrive in the modern economy.  The 7 survival skills are:

  1. critical thinking and problem solving
  2. collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. agility and adaptability
  4. initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. effective oral and written communication
  6. accessing and analyzing information
  7. curiosity and imagination

I don’t think any of these is really a modern skill, one brought on the by the information age, with the possible exception of collaboration across networks (which is often mediated by technology).  I think of these as time-tested skills that had assumed new urgency and importance in today’s uber-competitive world.

A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink (2005).  This book’s subtitle also jabs at the notion of quantitative thinking as the key to mastering the modern world.  “Why right-brainers will rule the future” proclaims the small print on the cover, as it unveils a series of ideas about how the right side of the brain holds the key to unlock the future’s piggy bank of health and wealth.  Pink’s ideas about “high concept, high touch” enterprises (“1. can someone overseas do it cheaper? 2. can a computer do it faster? 3. Is what I’m offering in demand in the age of abundance?”) are certainly the right questions, and I actually like this book a lot.  Pink also present six “senses” for the modern age, which are:

  1. not just function, but also design
  2. not just argument but also story
  3. not just focus but also symphony
  4. not just logic but also empathy
  5. not just seriousness but also play
  6. not just accumulation but also meaning

What I like about this framing is that it starts with actions on the low end of the cognitive taxonomy (gathering, knowing, understanding;  more on this later…) and ends with the high-end cognitive skills (designing, creating, composing, etc.).

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough (2012).  One of my favorite books in the category, this one provides perhaps the most progressive view of how we engage students in authentic learning while simultaneously building character.  This is also the most thoroughly modern book, in the sense that it provides a very accessible review of the currently-hot literature on “grit” and similar non-cognitive factors in success.  The idea is that the traditional cognitive skills (math, reading, and so on) we teach in schools are important, but a more critical task is to cultivate students who possess this non-cognitive strength, can overcome challenges, are resilient in the face of failure, and have that elusive “it” that makes them driven to succeed.  A vast simplification of a subtle and interesting book would focus on the three qualities mentioned in its subtitle:

  1. grit:  perseverance and passion toward long-term goals
  2. curiosity: the drive to learn more about the world
  3. the power of character: resilience in the face of setbacks

This book encapsulates what I believe to be the best thinking about success and failure, and the role that these non-cognitive skills play.  I’ve written about this recently, using data from my own institution to make the point that the input credentials of our students are fairly uniform and very strong.  But once they arrive in my school, their ability to succeed changes.

But what, you say, about the specifics of engineering education.  Glad you asked.

The Engineer of 2020, the National Academy of Engineering (2004).  This book in some ways generated the long line of urgent calls for reform in engineering education, including publications like the Gathering Storm report or the Duderstadt report.  The question it works to address is:  what are the competencies engineers will need in the world of 2020 and beyond?  The answer will not surprise you.  In addition to the basic literacies in mathematics and science, plus discipline-specific expertise, the engineer of 2020 needs:

  1. strong analytical skills
  2. practical ingenuity
  3. creativity
  4. communication skills
  5. business fundamentals
  6. leadership skills
  7. high ethical standards and professionalism
  8. dynamism, agility, resilience, and flexibility
  9. the passion to be a lifelong learner

It is rather striking the entirety of the “traditional” engineering curriculum (math, science, and discipline-specific knowledge) is lumped into a single entry on this list!  Okay, so it’s number 1 on the list.  But still, it’s only one of many important entries.

In part 2 of this, I’m going to engage in some analysis of this information and frame it in the context of learning taxonomies.  Yes, sounds geeky.  But it’s a useful way to synthesize all this into a more concrete understanding.  Stay tuned.