Archive for month: June, 2012

Write a Book Title for Engineering Education Transformation

Can you help Mark Somerville and me write a book title? We are producing a book connected to the Big Beacon movement and we are trying to come up with titles that reflect the kind of new engineering, engineering education, and change processed needed for our creative, transformative times. Here are some titles and subtitles, but we haven’t chosen as of yet, and your comments or suggestions could help us pick one of these, or something completely different!.

Send me your comments in an email to


  • A Whole New Engineer
  • Engineer 2.0
  • Beyond Brains on a Stick
  • The Shift
  • The Innovative Engineer

Subtitle (or subtitle themes)

  • A shift in mindset for a creative era
  • Responding to the imperative for a creative era
  • Meeting the challenge of a creative era
  • A different approach for a different time
  • Engineering and engineering education for a creative era
  • Engineering and engineering education are broken
  • Engineers are whole (mind/body) people

Help us crowdsource this title by writing to today.

Video: Karen Salmansohn and Perfectionism

Friend of ThreeJoy and the Big Beacon, author and artist Karen Salmansohn has a usefully funky take on perfectionism in the video in the viewer below:


Karen did the cool graphics on the Big Beacon Manifesto and the head-heart-hands poster here.  Her mission statement in life is quoted below:

My mission in one long run on sentence: To offer easy-to-absorb insights and advice to help you bloom into your happiest, most loved, highest potential self – and have fun in the process – because I use playful analogies, feisty humor, and stylish graphics to distill big ideas (from the latest scientific studies to ancient wisdom) into short, easily-digestible, life-changing tips.

Read more about Karen’s books and work on her website

Trust and Engineering Education Transformation

In the article Engineering Students Can Do X on Huffington Post (here) I talked about the role of trust and other essentially emotional variables in effective education reform, but what is trust?  It is a word that we use quite a lot, but it is one that we use in a number of different senses, oftentimes without clarity or precision. 

A resource to better understanding of trust is the book by Bob Solomon and Fernando Flores, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life, and the review at Coaching Counsel (here) covers a number of the essential points.  I became familiar with Bob Solomon by taking most of his Teaching Company courses in philosophy.  Fernando Flores is know for his dissertation in which he laid the foundations for modern coaching in Speech Acts and Heidegger (see earlier post on speech acts here), and Building Trust picks up where that work left off by viewing trust as action, really an investment, one that effects both the person trusted and trusting person.

There are other business books that deal with trust, but if you are interested in a conceptually rigorous examination of the concept, take a look at Building Trust.

Engineering Education Economics: The Goldberg-Laffer Curve

In discussions of why engineering education is so hard to reform, any number of culprits are often identified: stronger interest in research than teaching, lack of familiarity with or interest in active learning, experiential learning, problem-based learning or other pedagogical techniques, insufficient interest in the cultivation of our young people, and so on.  A factor that is rarely brought up is money. 

To get a handle on the economics of education transformation let’s turn back the time machine to the Reagan presidency and to an economist named Arthur Laffer.  Laffer suggested a theoretical construct, the Laffer curve, that postulated a relationship between government revenue and tax rates that first increased and then decreased as a function of marginal tax rate.  Laffer argued that if taxes were sufficiently high, and that if tax rates were reduced, that government revenue would increase.  Laffer was and is controversial, but whether he was right or whether he was right for the right or wrong reasons is unimportant to us here.  The shape of his curve, however, inspires our discussion.

Goldberg-Laffer Curve of Engineering Education

Consider the curve at the right.  Here we imagine that the cost (or time) invested by a faculty member in teaching as a function of student engagement.  At the left, a professor walks in with well-tested and well-worn 2o-year old course notes and gives the same lectures he or she always has given.  This is low cost, relatively low in student engagement, and in engineering education circles this situation is called the sage on the stage. 

In reform efforts, we encourage the sage to adopt experiential, active, problem-based, or some other form of enhanced learning, and if the instructor does so, we say he or she has become the guide on the side. He or she does so, however, at some personal cost, as shown on the curve with some increase in student engagement.  Since the faculty member is already fully involved in other actitivies,  the ΔC invested by the faculty member, of course, comes out of his or her discretionary time at home, in the lab, or doing other things the faculty member already values. Reformers suggest that this investment is important for the young people in the class room, but the individual instructor may or may not share their enthusiasm and commitment, and the cost is arguably the fundamental barrier to reform.  Dedicated missionaries like Rich Felder and Karl Smith have been teaching us all how to be more engaging in the classroom for two decades or more and yet, the classroom, especially in research universities, remains stubbornly resistant to wide scale and sustained change

Returning to the Goldberg-Laffer curve suggests another way out.  What if we could jump to the point on the curve labeled the learner with fervor where high student engagement is present and faculty-neutral costs are required?  This suggests we can have our cake and eat it, too, but is such a point even possible?

Cooperative experiments between Olin College and iFoundry at the University of Illinois at UIUC suggest it is.  For two semesters, Geoffrey Hermann has been leading a team conducting experiments with intrinsic motivation conversion on an existing lecture course in an introductory 2nd-year digital circuits.  The early returns are promising, and a subsequent post will examine them in more detail. For now, simply put, by reframing the discussion sections as intrinsicially motivated, students are more engaged from the get go and they shoulder more of the cost of that increased engagement.  For the faculty member, the experience requires little additional preparation and if he or she gets involved in the discussion sections, the increased interaction is more like that of a graduate-level seminar, requiring coaching and extant expertise, not additional preparation or work.

This possibility is very exciting to effective transformatio efforts, and it is one tool in a kit designed to bring about effective change without a faculty uprising. Watch for additional posts on intrinsic motivation conversion, and if you are interested in IM conversion or other effective means in transforming your program, write me at

Ten Steps to the Whole New Engineer

Dan Pink called for a Whole New Mind in his book on creativity of the same name (here).  Mark Somerville and I call for a Whole New Engineer and a Whole New Engineering Education in our latest Huffington Post article:

We live in a technological time. With nearly 7 billion people on the planet (and counting), we depend upon technology in almost every aspect of our lives. Billions are clothed, healed, fed, transported, connected, entertained, and employed through increasingly complex products, processes, and systems. And while technology is in one sense the gift that enables life for billions, its unintended consequences cause environmental and sustainability problems that are increasingly a concern.

As such, engineers and engineering are increasingly necessary to sustain and improve our way of life. Unfortunately, engineering is increasingly not the career path of choice for many who would otherwise make terrific engineers, and even if it were, the kinds of engineers being turned out by colleges and universities around the globe are too narrowly technical to address the complex and integrated nature of the opportunities and challenges of our times.

Read the full article here.  Read the Big Beacon Manifesto ( and its 31 points leading to a whole new engineer, a whole new engineer, and an education change process (rewire) that will get us there.

What Do Engineers Do During the Day? Hint: It’s Not Math

Engineering education misleads young engineers about what engineering practice is all about.  By concentrating almost all classroom air time on mathematics and the solution of well-formed problem s in physics or engineering science, we give young people the impression that they will spend most of their time doing these things at work in there real world.

Yet careful reflection about what engineers actually do during a day reveals that they engage in a variety of acts involving natural language.   Engineers write reports, emails, prepare and give presentations, speak on the phone, in the hallway.  Only occasionally do engineers do math, solve problems, and the other things that most of their training concentrated on.

As a result, there is a need following the usual cold war engineering education to backfill a young engineer’s education in the area of communication, but even these well-intended efforts concentrate on macro matters of form and ignore micro-level concerns for the nuts and bolts of language.  Fortunately, the discipline of philosophy discusses these matters under the rubric of speech acts, and modern coaching practice has made speech acts a core competency.

A good place to read about these matters is in the book Language and the Pursuit of Happiness by Chalmers Brothers, especially chapter 7.  Master coach, Lloyd Raines has a lovely handout on speech acts (here) and the wheel of complete communication, illustrated by a number of practical examples.

A small step toward a more practice relevant education would be to incorporate these ideas into engineering education and the pedagogical training of engineering professors and instructors.  ThreeJoy offers a number of training courses for students and for faculty in which speech acts play a crucial role. Contact me at to learn more.

Trust and the “We Weren’t Sure You Were Serious” Moment of iFoundry

In 2009, the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education ( admitted 73 freshmen into a special pilot freshmen experience that consisted of the following elements:

  1. A one-hour course Introduction to the Missing Basics of Engineering.
  2. A zero-credit extracurricular activity called iCommunity (handbook here)

The course consisted of two small hands-on projects and small discussion sections that discussed the critical and creative thinkings skills called the missing basics (video and paper).  The iCommunity consisted of 4 student-run teams aligned with student aspirations: Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Engineering in Service to Society, Services and Systems Engineering, and Art and Engineering Design.

The early days of iFoundry went swimmingly with a positively framed launch experience called iLaunch in which team-building activities were run, including a low-ropes course and team selection. Thereafter, things got a bit bumpier as the teams didn’t know what they should do.  The iCommunity had no requirements, and the teams kept asking what they should do.  iFoundry leaders answered by saying they would have the opportunity to report on their plans at the midterm iCheckpoint, but that what they did was up to them.

iLaunch 2009

This lack of structure caused a good deal of consternation.  “What do you want us to do?” was a constant refrain, and we answered, “You’re an entrepreneur go build something,” or “You want to save the world, start saving.”  These complaints and confusion continue up until the iCheckpoint, at which time, all four teams made lovely presentations about their plans, some of which were quite ambitious.

The evening of the iCheckpoint concluded with a kaizen or improvement session in which feedback was sought on how to improve.  A number of useful suggestions were made, and then one of the students raised her hand, and said that she had a comment not an improvement.  We asked, “What’s your comment?” and she continued as follows:

“We weren’t sure you were serious about us doing what we wanted to do, and then we realized you were, and it was really cool.”

Upon hearing this, I looked at iFoundry Associate Director, Karen Hyman, and she looked at me, and we both knew in that moment that something special had happened, but we didn’t know how special.

Immediately following that evening it was as if they students had been unleashed.  They started to take action and initiative without our permission and the remainder of the year was a whirlwind of freshmen taking uncharacteristic initiative in self-directed fun and learning activities.  In thinking back on why this happened, we realized that it was consistent with modern thinking about intrinsic motivation, but we realized that fundamental dynamic was about trust.

In short, we trusted the students, they believed they were trusted, and that belief resulted in them having the courage to take initiative in ways that aligned with their own aspirations.  In hindsight, there were a number of other actions on the part of iFoundry organizers that helped set up these virtuous circumstances, but the fundamental action was trust, and trust has become a pillar of the ThreeJoy approach to transforming engineering education around the globe.

To find how you can build trust into your change initiative, write to me at

A.B.E. – Anything But an Engineer

Students in developed countries want to be A.B.E, anything but an engineer.  The deck below considers this difficulty.

[slideshare id=13393593&doc=abe-anything-but-an-engineer-pptx-120620093031-phpapp02]

It considers also the way in which the Big Beacon (here) may be a way to overcome this difficulty.