A letter came in the mail the other day that I’ll be granted tenure in August… and so it goes.
Looking back on the last and first five years at WSU there are a lot of lessons learned.
One of the most important being what to teach. Dr. Chuck’s adage is best, “Always remember what you’re teaching your students, because all they remember is confidence.” That’s confidence in both you and themselves. Even that simple word, confidence, is complicated.
I was lucky that my first class was undergrad thermodynamics — a foundational class with a well established process, one that I was well prepared to deliver. Like most new faculty, it was hard, very hard, too hard. I had my advisors new text that was pending publication to glean homework problems from that nobody had the solutions for. I had a new software program to the university. I had one of the better groups of students that MME had in a few years. I implemented a no-office-hours policy, if there was a question it was first posted to a class discussion forum where a classmate could answer. Frequent homework included qualitative peer discussions, and extensive quantitative analysis. No flipped classrooms, standard lecture style. The results were clear a few years later. The top two Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam scores on the thermodynamics questions in WSU history came 1-1.5 years after each of my thermo sections.
The message came early, I could perform at teaching the fundamentals and the WSU students could perform well above the national average… and I repeated it. In many ways better and more efficiently than some of the leading teaching texts advocated. What to do now? More of the same?
This was where Dr. Chuck came in again to make me realize how narrow my view of teaching was. I really didn’t realize that the student’s frail confidence was a carefully constructed house of cards…
Take for example a differential equations class, you’re given an equation and asked to find a solution. Even Wolfram-Alfa can do this now. At the end of the class ask a student to setup that differential equation given a story problem, and the vast majority can’t. If I asked many of the thermo students to take a real world problem to setup a thermodynamic problem similar to their homeworks for solution they’d have a hard time. Go one step further– get them to find a real person that actually has a real thermo problem needing solved, then have them setup the problem, then solve. Now here’s a challenge that nearly everyone struggles with — but one that unquestionably makes the world better when we do. So why not do it all the time?
After switching to Systems Design and Experimental Design, I had more opportunities to address real problems with real clients in class. We took on a MachineScape art project, a $1 million prize challenge, and much, much, more. This lead me to change my values of what an education is for. I’ve also proposed models for restructuring curriculum to increase these opportunities. We don’t teach to an exam anymore. It’s nearly impossible to write an exam to assess what we do now.
Yet I still see high level speakers flown here to give high level lectures advocating the flipped classroom model. Please! Even in a flipped classroom, if you’re not having your students helping real clients through their work, you’re wasting everyone’s time. And if you’re giving the students huge, time-consuming, workloads and projects that don’t have a real client or problem at stake, you’re taking away from the other classes that do.
Last August I had the honor of going to breakfast with Rich Felder and Rebecca Brandt, the un-official thought leaders of the flipped classroom movement in engineering. I told them what we’re doing in Systems Design. Rich said to me, “Jake, how old are you?” I told him 32. He said, “You know what your problem is? By the time your 35 you will have accomplished all that any of us hoped to achieve in teaching and have nothing left.”
Hence why I’m here. A public, land-grant institution. I’m here to help the region and community– which will always have it’s fair share of problems and a need for students confident in solving them.