I’m always trying to think of ways to improve undergraduate education, and particularly undergraduate engineering education. This desire comes out of my own experiences entering UCLA as an undergraduate electrical engineering major. I took a bunch of random, disconnected classes. (I think my first quarter was the third class in a calculus sequence, introductory chemistry, and a cultural anthropology class.) After a year, I hadn’t learned much about what engineers did, I’d discovered chemistry was surprisingly difficult for me, and I had fallen in love with programming (in Pascal; this was 1984). For some reason, this random set of data encouraged me to switch to the Computer Science and Engineering major. After a bunch more physics and math, and a bit of computer architecture, I still had no idea what engineers did besides think about resistors. I got a part-time job at Hughes Aircraft as an Assistant Engineer, and I discovered that testing hardware was scary but that it was fun to follow engineers around and ask them questions so I could write down what they were doing and why. That experience, however, convinced me that I did not want to be an engineer–largely because I didn’t like working at a big defense corporation. But what if I’d had a different introduction to engineering, one that focused on what I could do with that knowledge, on imagining what I valued and how I could further those values with engineering skills, and one that centered on solving problems, not memorizing formulas for problem sets? I had actually entered engineering school with ambitious ideals for what I would accomplish, but nobody asked me about those, and none of my classes seemed related to them.
So when I read about a curriculum that immediately reveals to students how engineers think, and not only that, but also motivates socially conscious students to work hard in their engineering classes to bring about the changes they envision in the world, I am interested.
The book is A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education by David E Goldberg and Mark Somerville (with Catherine Whitney, who I assume did much of the writing!). They tell the story of the founding of Olin College of Engineering (started in 2000), the thinking behind the curriculum, and the ways that these ideas have been (and can be) borrowed by and adapted to much larger institutions. It’s a fascinating story in itself, and I’ll probably offer several posts on some of the key ideas. Here I’ll just add its general ideas about how to get students personally, intrinsically motivated:
- “Autonomy: making meaningful choices is a cornerstone of intrinsic motivation” (159). This means letting students make some choices; it means trusting them. “Autonomy-supportive instructors . . . spend more time listening, give fewer directives, ask more questions about what students want, verbalize fewer solutions to problems, make more emphatic statements, and offer greater support for students’ internalization of the learning goals” (159).
- “Purpose/Relatedness: Doing things that matter to your peers and to the world at large, increases intrinsic motivation” (163). This means both that students need to have sense of connection with a community for which they are designing their products, and they also need a sense of responsibility to the very people with whom they are working. Discussing the global influences of engineering, encouraging them to see how engineering has improved people’s lives (and when it has failed to do so), and having them work in teams are ways to accomplish this goal.
- “Mastery: Being effective increases intrinsic motivation”(164). This means that students need to be given opportunities to get better. They need to do something, get feedback, and improve that thing. They need to be encouraged to reflect on their accomplishments, asking “What was done well?” and “What can be improved?” (165)
The book offers many stories, and both general and specific ideas about education, curriculum, and classroom practices. I recommend that every teacher read it. I’d love to know what you think.