Every book I’ve read on effective education emphasizes the need to follow a carefully laid out syllabus:


Note the bump in use near the implementation of the Morrill act that created the land-grant university system. Today the syllabus remains an essential, unwavering, part of courses. Here in MME we generally use the following process for developing and utilizing course syllabi:

  1. You determine a new class is needed, you look at the ABET requirements for program accreditation. MME has developed an interpretation of these found here.
  2. Determine which ABET requirements you course intends to address and map to those in the syllabi. This becomes an objective statement or specification that the rest of class should be designed towards.
  3. Select a course text, software, design a schedule of lectures, grading rubric and policy, and any other procedural/policy information.
  4. The final syllabus draft is reviewed by the undergraduate studies committee and if approved can be implemented in class. The end result typically looks similar to this example from ME 316.
  5. The syllabus is handed out and read through on the first day of class, in an effort to create an expectation and coherence with the students.
  6. Our end of course evaluations pose the right-or-wrong question, “Did the instructor follow the syllabus?”

What’s not to like? Clearly the syllabus is an important part of our educational system.

To really place the syllabus into context though, we have to get out of our academic heads for analogous uses of syllabi. Try organizational charters, a table of contents, and contracts (note the latin prefix “con” for with or association). All of these intend to be a reliable commitment for an exchange.

The most accessible analogy of the syllabi is probably a restaurant menu. Usually a menu lays out the meal process: 1. appetizer, 2. primer, 3. entree, 4. desert, 5. beverage. This process comes in many forms:

  • an elementary school cafeteria menu for a semester (if you don’t like the meal one day, better plan ahead),
  • fast-food order-board complete with pictures (point and grunt, allows users to select from pre-determined outcomes),
  • a page-style menu of a cafe (same page regardless of time of year, user determines meal outcome),
  • a standard menu accompanied by daily or weekly specials (some adaptation to what’s in season, fully user determined),
  • a fixed menu/course/plate determined totally by the chef based on what’s available that day (you’re lucky to be eating whatever they’ve cooked),
  • determined totally by the chef based on what’s available that day and your dining history with the restaurant (demonstrated by N/Naka in LA on Chef’s Table).
  • a dedicated farm exists to provide superior food for the chef on a predictable basis that can be supplemented with others readily available (analogous to farm-to-table, demonstrated by Blue Hill Farm on Chef’s Table).

If you had to associate our syllabi system with a restaurant model from the above list, you’re likely to pick the elementary school cafeteria. The way we use syllabi nearly completely removes autonomy from the instructor and student in order to maximize reliability while minimizing cost. If you think it’s effective, Jamie Oliver’s crusade to change the school cafeteria system at the heart of childhood obesity says otherwise. What the traditional syllabus/cafeteria menu model does is remove nearly all opportunity to adapt to resources and what you learn as the semester progresses, i.e. it minimizes thought, empathy, and autonomy.

Looking back at the restaurant list above, which do you think delivers a more reliable meal? The elementary school cafeteria? Or the Michelin star restaurants at the bottom? Definitely the latter, adding autonomy and thought, while creating a systemic approach to food sourcing is scalable and more reliable. Visionary Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm has a couple of quotes that rocked my world (forgive the lack of exactness here), “Any corners that are cut reduce flavor,” and “When we came to North America, the land was so fertile that rather than learning the local flavors we forced our prior favorites on the land at the expense of what was already here.”

I know, I know, you’re immediately thinking, “we’re at a state funded institution, you can’t honestly expect Michelin star performance or autonomy.” Actually, WSU Chef Jamie Callison and the Marriott Room show that we can. Most of the key ingredients are sourced from WSU’s organic farms (may’be the first and last time I have a Wagyu steak!). Moreover, Blue Hill Farm works closely with the WSU Bread Lab to develop more flavorful and unique grains. What this means is that having a minimum number of classes with Michelin star performance as the expectation should be the expectation of all programs at WSU.

How would the clients react if Chef Jamie, or the Blue Hill Farm restaurant handed out elementary school cafeteria style menus? What do you think happens to our students when we hand out cafeteria style syllabi?

So what do we need to do with our syllabi to unshackle ourselves and allow for higher autonomy in our engineering courses? A couple of steps:

  1. Take a studio/athletic training/manufacturing floor/prep kitchen approach to our design spaces and course time. Create the expectation that the space is conformable to our needs. Begin and end every session with the high energy re-ordering/arranging necessary to transform and return the space accordingly for the next users. Students need to mentally prepare themselves on the way to class to begin class with this high energy. Three hours a week is hardly enough for any class and each session and student needs to be prepared to maximize the value of the time spent. This will immediately load a fundamentally different mind/meme-set than traditional classes, one that’s more relevant to modern needs. (Note that Dan Bukvich and the University of Idaho Jazz Choir are exceptional at this.)
  2. Create the expectation that the class is a process and highly subject to what we’ll learn about our problem and ourselves over the course of the semester. Set the expectation that we will NOT follow the syllabus as planned.
  3. Take a fundamentally different approach to grades. We’re talking about real performance deliverables here for real clients. Grades need to have a large completion component that his highly linked to customer satisfaction and team performance.
  4. Use the traditional document time to present the syllabus to establish these high performance-communitarian values. Companies never begin an introduction with a boiler-plate cafeteria style menu. Companies always begin with a friendly mission and vision closely tied to the current problem. The conformance standards and contractual documents are always hidden away and optional to read if required. We usually just click the “I have read and accept these terms and conditions” without reading them anyways. It’s because we’ve already bought into the vision and commitment for the exchange.

Bottom line is, I’ll never again waste class time by handing out course syllabi the way I was taught. That said, the problem is not the syllabus. It’s how we use it and the expectations created when used poorly.