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