Last Friday in my Systems Design class something incredibly wonderful emerged from the students. It was the first time I’d observed this in an engineering course. In short, it was professionalism– an evolved form of professionalism that I will attempt to describe here. But first, some definitions for context.

For many years I taught “professionalism” in Experimental Design via the standard US-Engineering way, starting with the Attributes of a Profession:

  1. Work that requires sophisticated skills, the use of judgement, and the exercise of discretion. Also, the work is not routine or capable of being mechanized.
  2. Membership in the profession requires extensive formal education, not simply practical training or an apprenticeship.
  3. The public allows special societies or organizations that are controlled by members of the profession to set standards for admission to the profession, to set standards of conduct for members, and to enforce these standards.
  4. Significant public good results from the practice of the profession.

I’d then dive into definitions of judgement and discretion followed by the ASME code of ethics. As you can imagine, this legalistic lecture was a real snoozer. In many ways, it’s analogous to the old Sensei saying “The water is warm today.” Followed by the students saying, “what water?” Or better yet Lao Tze’s: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

But what happened last Friday was something completely different. I’d seen this once before about 12 years ago when I sat in on one of Dan Bukvich’s vo-jazz rehearsals and subsequently was ushered into higher ed by giving a demo lecture to his musical composition class. It’s also a trait I repeatedly observe during Dancers, Drummers, Dreamers performances (which Dan also orchestrates from behind the scenes). In short, Dan’s students have a level of confidence and mastery that is nearly magical–totally alien to nearly all engineering courses and students I’ve ever interacted with. Dan would sit in the back and present new challenges, new tasks, he would even do it live during concerts,, it didn’t matter, the students had achieved the confidence to adapt, work together, improvise, and regardless of the situation would perform as, indeed, “professionals”.

So what did I have to do to promote this behavior from my Systems Design class? A couple of steps (open to revision):

  1. Give them a real challenge and real resources that require them to work together for a solution (analogous to a concert/performance).
  2. Hand over the reigns/marker/pointer/mouse to the students to empower them to present, be empathetic to, and address the needs between eachother (analogous to a flipped course).
  3. Test the system by giving them real and impromptu opportunities to perform and thereby increase their confidence (we had a UW news crew drop in and take video, the students rocked it!).
  4. Record/tell the story so that it can be repeated by them and others.

Like I said in a prior post, you’ll know when something is wrong and when it’s working. I was not needed for the discussion happening in Systems Design last Friday. The students knew that they held the keys, they needed eachother to solve the problems in front of them, and that they had the necessary pieces to make it happen. When I told Dan and my friend PK about this, they called it “professionalism.” This is likely what professionalism looks like from the performance-communitarian shift, or the community-systemic shift. I could have asked Dan how he knows when he’s effective in teaching professionalism, but I knew what the answer would be: “the number of empty seats.”

Dan and PK also added, “you’re finally teaching.” Indeed. Thank you. Finally.