Engineering Education is a key driver for Europe’s ability to sustain as a place for innovation and development. To make progress on this matter, the ”European Society for Engineering Education“ (SEFI) has an annual conference bringing together professors and teachers and enablers from all over the world.
When did you last attend to a conference where they handed out soccer whistles to the keynote speakers? The guys from Birmingham university found a piece of joy that is manufactured in Birmingham and can be taken on an airplane without security hassle.
In this post, you can read some of my impressions on the SEFI conference that I was grateful to attend on behalf of MathWorks. Especially from the keynotes you can take away something for your daily work even if you are neither in engineering nor in education as profession. While they laid out their speeches for engineers in particular, a lot of the points apply to any professional.
A lot of speaking comes back to the importance of computational thinking. Or, as last week Jonathan Rosenberg from Google put it:
Also well received was our visualization of all conference papers/abstracts based on a selection of keywords, spanning a three dimensional space in which you can see what a typical SEFI paper looks like and then spot how individual papers compare to. Contact me if you would like to know more.
Flipping with Purpose
Dr Keith Willey from University of Technology, Sydney, explained how flipping a classroom changes the learning experience completely, and how the teacher has to adapt their own behavior. Flipped classroom is a concept where not the teacher is in frontal presentation for 90 minutes and the students listen, but students have to prepare in advance and then talk their questions through in groups during class. In addition, they have to solve tasks associated with the subject.
While classical teaching usually drives low engagement over the course of the course, with a huge spike right before exam time, the flipped classroom concept ensures that there is a high level of engagement the whole year. Students learn from multiple sources, not just from the professor. They learn from each other. The class thus has to be designed for learning. Not using ”carrot and stick“ method with the outlook to the exam, but creating an environment of opportunities.
How do students then see whether they have understood a concept when most things are based on peer learning? Keith Willey explained how in his class they experimented with different types of small projects. Students would jointly work on a project and learn important aspects of the subject. Variations of that task give students ways to check how far they actually master the subject, by placing barriers in the previous process.
All of that of course depends also on the teacher’s ability to give students the why, the what as well as guidance on how to self evaluate and how the skills impact reality.
Designing Design Learning
And while we are speaking about designing the learning experience, Dr Cynthia Atman Director, Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching comes handy with her keynote about ”Designing Design Learning“.
”Engineering is design under constraint.“
Dr. Cynthia Atman
She exposed freshmen engineering students and graduate students to the task of designing children’s playgrounds and recording exactly the conversations that were going on. She uses the voice recording to determine what kind of stage is currently going on, using the following categories:
- Problem Description (PD)
- Gathering (GATH)
- Generate Ideas (GEN)
- Modeling (MOD)
- Feasibility (FEAS)
- Evaluation (EVAL)
- Decision (DEC)
- Communication (COM)
With that, she creates Gantt charts of the process. It turns out that groups that are doing well – experienced or inexperienced – have much more transitions between the different categories than groups with mediocre results. Jumping too early into modeling sate without proper describing the problem and gathering inputs, little progress is made.
Cynthia published not just a bunch of papers on that topic, but also has various representations of these project records as music-like audio as well as art-like artifacts on their website Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education. The soundtracks are particularly worth listening.
The soundtrack idea also caused her to exchange with Jazz musicians, who confirmed an important lesson for engineers: Good music is about a lot of practice, a good orchestration and then letting improvisation happen.
Engineering in Primary School
Susan Scurlock from Primary Engineer has a mission. Her not-for-profit organization aims at encouraging young people in UK to consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) related professions.
To achieve that, Susan brings teachers and engineers and children together. Teachers attend trainings in industry, in local companies in particular. They build networks with engineers from those companies and thus get a better understanding what the very basic skills they teach children in primary school may evolve to in the long run. Engineers volunteer in schools, to get direct exposure to children that one day may become their successors.
”Girls choose careers like shopping. They try out.“
It’s not that children do not want to become engineers, they most likely just have a vague idea of what it means, especially the girls. After running the program for a while, Susan from Primary Engineer did a survey in form of collecting drawings from primary school children. She asked them ”What would you do as an engineer?“ She got 1800 responses, and thus 1800 inventions. Things that to a large extent are not yet heard of in the world of engineering. Once the children get exposure to engineering thinking, their imagination goes wild, and they can relate to STEM subjects much better than with the classical education in school.
It’s the teachers who have a better understanding what they are teaching. And children getting the opportunities to try out professions early on.
Bridging the Skills Gap in STEM Industries
My colleague Coorous Mohtadi talked on how to Bridging the Skills Gap in STEM Industries. YouGov and MathWorks conducted a survey in UK targeted at industry leaders and academics, to find out what industry is looking for in university graduates and other new hires.
There seems to exist a gap between what employers expect and the skills new hires bring in. Silo thinking in both university and industry prevent universities taking better into account what companies need, and companies understanding better why universities teach what they teach.
Collaboration again is key. Again, exchange of personnel between the two sides benefit both. Engineers lecturing in universities can bring in valuable real life experience, while professors and teachers becoming interns in companies drive essential exchange of opinions and mutual learning.
- A lot of skills students can learn on their own in a guided environment: Project Based Learning, as e.g. talked about by Keith Willey above.
- Communities formed around skills and projects drive exchange between students and thus mutual learning.
- Computational Thinking allows students to learn how to employ algorithms and computers early on to solve problems. Computational Thinking thus includes the skill to formalize a real world problem in a way a computer can help solving it.
- Gamification drives engagement through a system that rewards students and allows them to go into the flow. Student Competitions are another way of gamification in education.
It is clear that universities are no replacement for apprentice, and that universities have to educate also for research. Nevertheless, the required skills have more in common than separates them.
Public Image of Engineers
Professor Alice Roberts is a clinical anatomist and professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. She took us on a journey on the image of the mad scientist, how it arose, and how the perception of scientific truth evolves.
”Keep science in public.“
She explained the latter on the example question where do babies come from – see my sketchnotes.
Her conclusion is that thing most often got weird when science lost its contact with the general public, because then no longer the quote from T.H. Huxley applies: ”Science is common sense.“
Alice Roberts gave a clear call to action:
- Do not cultivate the nerd/mad scientist image for yourself. Stay grounded.
- Talk with people about what you do.
SEFI and an Outlook
It is true that pure education conference sometimes seems less tangible than a pure research conference. To me, that is understandable, because it’s about humans educating humans. The feedback loops on what works and what does not are very long, and very hard to sense.
But it is great to spend time with people who do care about the next generation of engineers.
Disclaimer: I work for MathWorks, the maker of MATLAB & Simulink, and thus earn my living thru the ability of that software to solve challenges as described in this article. This post provides my personal opinion, it is not an official statement.
Photo credit: Joachim Schlosser, License Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike