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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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Categories: Uncategorized

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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