Don’t Cry for Me Argentinian Engineering Education

María Teresa Morresi from AGIBTA Magazine (here) sent me a list of interview questions regarding engineering education.  I shot back a quick reply, and I thought the spontaneity of my answers gave them a force that was worth sharing.  Here is a somewhat edited version of her questions and what I wrote:

AGIBTA: I became aware of your work in engineering education through the 2nd Engineer of the Future meeting (EotF2.0) at Olin College in 2009 (here). Tell me a little more about your involvement in engineering ed transformation before and since that time. 

Dave G: Prior to my work on EotF2.o I was involved in starting and running the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education (here) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The success of the work on iFoundry and with my colleagues at Olin College on Engineer of the Future and other activities led me to resign my tenure from the University of Illinois to (1) take training as a leadership coach, (2) start ThreeJoy Associates, Inc. as a coaching, training, and consulting/facilitating firm to transform engineering education and (3) to start the Big Beacon, a global movement to transform engineering education as a non-profit corporation.  For more information on these and other things, see the website, manifesto, and blog (www.bigbeacon.org), the ThreeJoy blog (www.threejoy.com), and an informative series of Huffington Post articles  (here).

AGIBTA: Which are the innovations to improve engineering education and transform classrooms? 

Dave G: Most change programs concentrate on curriculum and content.  This is largely misplaced emphasis, in my view. The key innovations are emotional and cultural.  We have a culture of distrust.  We need a culture of trust.  We have a culture of individual effort.  We need a culture of connection and openness.  We need a culture of courage.  We have a culture of fear
 
AGIBTA: Could you please let as know a bit more about the relationship between self-efficacy and project-based learning among engineering students?
 
Dave G: The question assumes that project-based learning is a solution to achieve self-efficacy, but I remember going to a school in Brazil once and being shown a project-based course as an exemplar of “new pedagogy.”  I went to class and the students were presenting a project, and the prof was correcting each and every sentence that came out of the students’ mouths.  
 
We need self-efficacy, and to achieve it we need what I call unleashing experiences.  Unleashing experiences begin where a faculty member (or the student themselves) trusts the student.  The student believes they are trusted.  Finally, the student has the courage to take a risk and do something that leads to their mastery of something new.  Diagrammatically this is shown below:
 
UNLEASHED STUDENT =  TRUSTED –> BELIEVES TRUSTED –> COURAGE TO TRY SOMETHING NEW
 
This unleashing is the key.  I think we need to stop speaking in code words like “project-based learning” or “active learning” and starting getting at root emotional and cultural variables that really unleash our kids.

AGIBTA: Which are the best e-learning strategies?

Dave G: E-learning properly conceived, supports emotionally and cutlurally engaged education.  Unfortunately, the current excitement about MOOCs puts the cart before the horse.  Once we get our heads straight about what’s important in the class and why, we can adopt effective E-learning techniques.  Until then, we are mistaking tools for solutions.
 
AGIBTA: Students are a powerful force in transforming engineering educationHow to include them in new educational strategies implementation?
 
Dave G: I love this question.  Students are the only powerful force in transforming engineering education.  Unfortunately, they are rarely consulted in change efforts and usually only subjected to whatever the administration and faculty think is necessary after the design is in place.  Then we wonder how to get student “buy-in” which suggests our wonder about why they don’t think much of the new design.
 
How do we include them?  We start by noticing them.  We continue by listening to them deeply with empathy.  We continue by asking them open ended questions and listening some more.  We also trust them to be full members of the redesign effort.  
 
If we could do one thing that would transform our schools, it would be to create a culture of listening. 
 
AGIBTA: How you prepare students to become innovative?
 
Dave G: You challenge them, trust them, let them fail. coach them to success, and repeat.
 
AGIBTA: Which are the current challenges for Engineering Universities?
 
Dave G:  The problem is that universities are victims of their success. Universities are ancient institutions. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088.  Since then, there has been a 10-century consensus about the role of professors as experts. Unfortunately, since World War 2, the quality revolution, entrepreneurial revolution, and the information technology revolution, what I have called the missed revolutions–missed in the sense that universities teach but don’t practice their lessons–have changed the world we live in.
 
As a result, returns to expertise are diminished.  In turn, this diminuition of expertise challenges the role of the professor in both the lab and the classroom. Unfortunately, professors are one trick ponies. They only know how to be experts. The brave new world of the 21st century and our creative era demands a combination of expertise with an ability to trust and develop others. In other words, the world today requires an academy full of Experts/Coaches, not just pure experts. 
 
This is a terrific challenge, one that can be overcome, but most of the noises coming from our research universities suggest business as usual, a doubling down on WW2-based strategies of research and expertise, and a lack of recognition how a 9 or 10 century consensus toward the role of the university and the role of the professor is being undermined before our very eyes.  
 
Given the very slow decision making apparatus of a university, it is not clear whether these ancient and venerable institutions have what it takes to transform themselves. The current fumbling is sad to watch. It is also exciting to be a part of a growing number of efforts to try to change it, and I think there are effective tactics and strategies to follow in those institutions that are aware of the challenges they face.
 
AGIBTA: What conclusions can be drawn from the Summits on the Engineer of the Future?
 
Dave G: The first engineer of the future event was held in 2007 at the University of Illinois. The one in 2009 was the 2nd. There was a 3rd and we are hoping for a fourth. These events set into motion a number of activities at Olin, at Illinois, and elsewhere to practically address many of the questions and answers presented here. There is still much to learn, but it is clear that by (1)  focusing on change management itself, (2) by viewing change as a cultural and emotional process, and (3) by working to inject a new kind of actor, an actor with both expertise and an ability to listen and coach, that real change can be made.  How quickly this can work and whether it can work quickly and broadly enough remain open questions.
 
AGIBTA: Thank you for your thoughtful responses.
 
Dave G: Thank you for your thoughtful questions, and I wish all my colleagues in Argentina and elsewhere in South America the space and openness to reflect on these challenges and the wisdom and courage to move ahead with effective, in-context solutions.