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The Weekly Blab 1.16

The Weekly Blab

Vol. 1, Number 16—March 23, 2007

 

Dear Colleagues,

 

Here we go with the sixteenth issue of the Weekly Blab, where I ramble on about a couple of issues that have arisen as of late.

 

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ITEM:  News from the System

Our degree proposal in Systems Engineering was approved by the Board of Regents, making four engineering programs available at SPSU.  What’s next?  Probably Chemistry, then Psychology, then we’ll see.  Please contact your representative on the Academic Planning Task Force if you have suggestions.

 

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ITEM:  The Future of Engineering

In the last BLAB, I promised to write a few words about Engineering at SPSU and where it’s going, at least in my opinion.  Obviously, all of this will be discussed among the Engineering Task Force, with the Deans, and with the departments.

 

First—we will continue to offer both engineering and engineering technology.  For those who are worried that we are going to abandon engineering technology, stop worrying—we’re not. 

 

Second—I believe we will eventually separate the engineering departments from the ET departments.  When?  That’s not clear at this point, but not any time soon.  My best guess is about 5 years from now, when there are more engineering degrees offered at SPSU, and when we have a substantial number of engineering students. 

 

Third—We will identify which faculty on our campus have the credentials appropriate to teaching engineering.  These faculty will be designated “engineering faculty” in the same way that faculty currently are designated “graduate faculty”.  It doesn’t mean that all they will teach is engineering, especially in the near term, since we don’t have a lot of engineering students yet.  We’ll still need these faculty to teach some ET.  As the number of engineering students rises, the teaching loads will shift to some degree.  We’ll also be hiring some new faculty in engineering and ET.  Also, I think that SPSU needs to support faculty who want to enhance their credentials so that they are qualified to teach engineering, for example, by helping support them gaining licensure.  Who will decide who is engineering faculty and who isn’t?  We’ll do this together.  The chairs already have some guidelines developed in the engineering planning committee for doing this.

 

Fourth—Until the departments separate (and we’ll see then), I don’t see any big changes in workload or any big differentials in salary between ET and engineering.  I suppose we may have to pay a little more to hire some engineering faculty in some key areas (current average starting salaries as of the March 16, 2007 Chronicle are $69,510 in engineering and $57,672 in ET), but we’ll discuss this openly and give folks ample opportunity to state their views as to how we should proceed into the future.  As you might expect, the type of scholarship expected of engineering faculty will be different than that expected of engineering technology faculty.  We’ll need to help each chair develop some scholarship guidelines for their department and make sure we have allocated the resources necessary to support their faculty. 

 

Finally (for now)—I think that the curriculum in ET needs to change a bit as we define the curriculum in engineering more carefully.  Again, this will be done in close consultation with the faculty in the appropriate areas, but we have all acknowledged that engineering courses need to be more design and math intensive, and that ET courses need to focus on specific application of current technology.  Both E and ET are highly desirable programs, preparing students for excellent and challenging careers.  Each is desirable to particular types of students—the more theoretically minded students will select engineering, and the more practically oriented students will select ET.  Both are great choices, and one should never be treated as a “consolation prize” to the other.  The more differentiable we make the two programs to prospective students; the happier we’ll all be in the long run.

 

Our next moves?  We’ll be selecting a new Dean for ETM, discussing which engineering programs we should go after next (and new ET programs and concentrations as well), and also our general strategy for building up engineering and ET as we go forward.  We’ll be discussing what needs to go into our future engineering building(s), consulting with ABET on how and if we can prepare a path to convert ET grads into engineering grads, and lots of other important matters.  We’ve only just begun, and I can promise you it won’t be boring.

 

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ITEM:  Class Size

Our recent Academic Planning discussions about class size have struck a nerve with some, so I thought I’d write a few words on that subject.

 

Some folks are concerned that an edict from on high is going to come down and compel folks to teach courses at much higher sizes than today, sharply increasing the faculty’s workload, all in the name of efficiency.  If you’re worried about that, stop worrying—it’s not gonna happen.

 

Right now, we teach courses at the size we teach them for several reasons.  In some cases, we teach them in small sections because that’s the size that pedagogically works best, and leads to good results with our students.  These are courses that we should leave alone.  A good example is ENGL 1101-1102—teaching them in larger sections would be counterproductive to students learning to communicate effectively, given the writing-intensive nature of these courses. 

 

Some courses are taught at a particular size because that’s how many spaces there are in the lab or the classroom.  No one is arguing (I think!) that ECET labs are ideally taught in groups of 16.  We do it that way because that’s the number that will fit in the lab.  When we design and build our new facilities, we should think about our courses, and design the classrooms and labs to accommodate the pedagogy we think is best.  So, changes in some courses can only come with changes in facilities.

 

Finally, some classes can certainly grow in size—I’d argue that CHEM 1211 and 1212, which I teach on occasion, can do so without harming students in any way.  Do most people agree?  We’ll see—we’re not going to do anything without serious discussion and opportunity for comment.

 

We need to think about what we’re doing, and make informed decisions.  Class size is a choice, and what size works best is a matter of research (seeing what other universities are doing with the course), experimentation (we can try several things and see what works best), and philosophy (what kind of a university do we want to be?  What kind of a program do we want to offer?)  By the way—this kind of experimenting to find out what kind of pedagogy works best in support of student learning is a great example of Boyer’s “Scholarship of Teaching”—it’s something that SPSU should excel at.

 

See below for a little more on the subject, from some other universities’ perspectives.

 

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ITEM:  Road Trip!

As many of you know, Bill Barnes, Dave Caudill, Tom Currin, Alan Gabrielli, and I attended an NSF conference on designing and constructing science and engineering facilities this past weekend in Washington DC.  Here’s the trip report.

 

We met at 6:45 AM (yech!) and drove to the airport.  The flight out was uneventful, aside from them confiscating my mouthwash, shaving cream and toothpaste since I had containers that were larger than 3 ounces.  I don’t understand the shaving cream and toothpaste part at all, and I had less than 3 oz. of mouthwash, though in a 6 oz. container.  Anyway, we landed at Dulles and picked up our rental van (big and roomy!) and drove to the conference center—a Marriott hotel.  It was raining the whole way, and the rain turned into snow a little after we got there, so our timing was perfect.  I’ll say one thing for the hotel and the conference—the food was the best I’ve ever had at one of these things.

 

The meetings started at 2 PM, with all sorts of plenary and breakout sessions.  We had decided earlier (and signed up) so that we covered the whole waterfront—each of us went to a different breakout session so that we wouldn’t miss anything.

 

When the other universities in attendance discussed their new buildings and what might go in them, it won’t surprise you to know that they were concerned with class sizes too.  The difference was, no two places taught at the same size.  We were laughing when the folks from Eastern Carolina were talking about some online industrial technology program they had, and that they were expecting class enrollments of 1000! 

 

One of the more interesting sessions dealt with MIT’s intro physics courses.  They had taught intro physics as a single section of 600 students, with a 3-hour lecture, no lab, and 2-hour recitation sections of 25.  Their problem?  They felt that the course wasn’t working well enough, since they had a failure rate of 15%.  That’s right, 85% of their students were passing and they thought this wasn’t good enough.  I like that kind of thinking.

 

What they decided to do was to restructure the course into 6 lab/lecture sections of 100, which now take place in a room with 11 big tables, each holding 9 students working in groups of three. Each of these sections was supervised by a single faculty member, assisted by a couple of grad students.  They faculty member does an introductory lecture for some 20-30 minutes, then a lab type of activity where the students analyze and apply the subject, and then a closing activity or lecture.  Some folks wanted to know what the faculty thought of grading 100 lab reports per section. The answer was: they don’t grade them.  The lab reports are graded by the students (each grading someone else’s paper, following a rubric, and having to justify their grading).  Sounds like critical thinking going on to me.

 

Given that lab work is less efficient at conveying information than lecture, the question was asked as to how they still managed to cover all the material.  Again, the answer was surprising.  First, they said that they didn’t try to cover the same amount of material as before.  They felt that it was more important that students learn how to learn (and that was the main point of these lab/lectures), and that if they needed to pick up something that had been missed in the course, this new course format would prepare them to do it on their own.  Second, they expected the students to prepare for class before class, by spending 3 hours of preparation for each hour of class.  Did their students really do that?   They said they thought the students did. 

 

So—what were the overall results?  Well, they wouldn’t have reported it unless the students who took the course this way did better on standardized tests than those who didn’t, would they?  Do I think that an approach like this would work at SPSU?  Honestly, I have some doubts whether some parts would work (like relying on students to do 3 hours of prep per class hour hits me as iffy at best), while other parts are worth looking at.  The point here is that MIT is thinking about their pedagogy, and isn’t afraid to try different things.

 

Some other interesting things—it really hit me that we’re quite different from most other universities, and realizing this can lead us to some interesting places.  For example, many universities had a big issue they had to deal with—how to get their liberal arts faculty and the administration to understand the importance of science and engineering facilities and to invest in them.  So, what’s a major problem at most universities isn’t a problem at SPSU at all.  We, in fact, have the opposite issue—the issue of how we should focus on non-science and engineering areas. 

 

Another example—one university wanted to build a new science center that would be so inviting to non-scientists that it would be mistaken for a campus center.  In thinking of us as the “opposite”, I started to think about our campus center, and wondering why no one would mistake it for a science center.  In other words, why don’t we have any displays showcasing our strengths in science, ET and engineering in our campus center?

 

Probably the biggest thing that kept coming up at the conference was that students do a lot of learning outside of class and lab, and that our facilities should have lots of attractive nooks and crannies to encourage students to hang out together, talk and think, developing a real learning community.  You can’t just hope that this will happen—you have to design (or retrofit) your facilities to make this happen.  We’ll be talking more about this in the near future, but in the meantime, think about where this might happen for your discipline.

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OK—That’s it for now.  Let me know your thoughts.  Also, let me know if there’s any topic you’d like me to address, and I’ll try to do it.

 

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