To teach is to aid another in their creation of knowledge. When teaching within a discipline, that aid focuses on providing structures and content that lead to developing knowledge deemed important to allowing one to achieve within that field. An undergraduate education must prepare a student to transition into their chosen profession; my philosophies of student learning connect with that goal. I built them from my experience in the practice of engineering and from the disciplinary values I observed leading to successes in both academia and industry. First and foremost, the discipline of engineering depends on many others; from the sciences to the arts and from psychology to philosophy, it forms from the innovative utilization and combination of seemingly disparate masteries to advance our capabilities as a society. We take advantage of developments in science, inspiration from engineering marvels, and knowledge from our own experiences to brew new solutions to the problems the world presents. Our core educational foundation in engineering reflects this by requiring our students take part in a broad range of subjects, such as chemistry, physics, math, technologies, and many others before considering our students prepared to graduate. As the students progress, these fields tie together during various design courses and independent projects; here, gaps in knowledge soon become apparent and must be filled. The very nature of engineering projects force students to learn unexpected subject-matter beyond the content of the syllabus in order to succeed within the courses.
For an engineer to advance the technological capabilities of our society, they must be motivated to be curious and seek out new knowledge to feed into their designs. This mindset is something our pedagogy should acknowledge and encourage. Students must come to realize when they need to take the time to learn about a topic as well as preemptively seek out interesting subjects in hopes of inspiring more creative solutions. Our education of engineering students should prepare them to be such lifelong learners, continually adding to their knowledge and experience in order to feed their engineering work. The student experience can be designed to encourage this habit.
Students experience a wide range of subjects over the progression of an engineering curriculum. Individual courses already show the inherent value and necessity of prior knowledge by building from prerequisite courses. This can be further emphasized as part of the pedagogy by directly addressing when that past knowledge benefits the students in the present. Situations when prior knowledge and experience do not directly build into something but rather combine with other concepts into new realms of engineering for the students are particularly significant to showcasing the value of such general curiosity. Instructors can build on these opportunities by illustrating the connections between that knowledge leading to the new ideas or noteworthy solutions. Connecting courses and projects across the curriculum, treating students in each class as the discipline teams on larger projects, could more formally promote this understanding as well. This approach not only mimics how engineers work together in industry settings, but also showcases how disparate subjects combine in engineering to achieve particular goals.
Acquiring new knowledge and experience only serve as a single aspect of an excellent engineer. I typically observe another less tangible aspect in great engineers: a flexibility of thought robust enough to reevaluate information, combine it with past realizations and utilize that knowledge and experience towards creative engineering. A curriculum can develop that flexibility of thought as part of a student’s personal design processes by incorporating it as an underlying feature of activities and directly present the concept to the students. Seminars and presentations focussing on how highly creative innovators make use of their knowledge and formulate their design processes is one way to present these ideas to students. Department-led workshops featuring challenges designed to encourage the non-standard use of common materials and competitive elements that favor the most divergent ideas and innovative uses is another. Discussion groups in coordination with these workshops or formal courses around the topic of active creativity and its consideration in engineering design effectively develops this vital skill in student engineers and gives them an opportunity to vocalize their understandings. Prescriptive measures for known scenarios have their uses in engineering, but the great engineers develop their flexibility of thought to address the new and unknown challenges;
properly directed activities cultivate that skill in student engineers.
The last educational theory I would like to discuss is not one unique to the practice of engineering but is important nonetheless: students learn in different ways. Some students simply need to review a textbook to understand something while others need an initial walkthrough by an instructor. Others require a visual, hands on, or real world reference before internalizing the concept. Many individuals find expressing their learning easier in a 20-page paper while just as many are more confident presenting their acquired knowledge in a 10-minute presentation. Students and instructors establish preferences about course types, be it traditional, project-based, flipped, online, or another style, based on which they typically excel in. One approach to accommodate these differences involves providing various versions of courses. This could be accomplished by teaching, for instance, ‘Statics’ one semester in a traditional style and the next as a flipped classroom or by providing both options to students in the same semester; however, this may not work due to limited resources and curricular path requirements. I prefer developing courses that accommodate these differences, courses that present the information, assessment, and feedback in several different ways. This compromise allows all students to participate comfortably in the coursework while understanding that, at times, the style may not be their preferred. For those students who suffer in traditional coursework, experiencing new ways to learn is important, and for those who have excelled in traditional courses, experiencing new learning situations helps prepare them for unfamiliar circumstances. In either scenario, students will have the opportunity to experience different learning scenarios and discover which will best serve their preferences in future educational endeavors.
An engineer must be curious and a lifelong learner, continually adding to their knowledge and experience to feed their personal repository of ideas and understandings that fuels their designs. Success in engineering requires a flexibility of thought to see how the content of that repository interrelate and combine to become creative solutions. That skill, when used as part of a well developed design process, leads to many marvelous engineering achievements. To teach these ideals though, an educator must appreciate that students learn in different ways. These three philosophies help me in preparing my lessons and served me well throughout my career.
My students responded well to these approaches and I enjoyed watching as they soon began taking on larger challenges, refining their design processes, and generating more complex and novel designs. They far exceeded their own expectations when given the choice in how they learn and after understanding how all the activity and information tied together in our greater learning goals. Their course evaluations reflected those sentiments and the course I taught in the Fall of 2015 was even nominated as Tufts University’s Best Course. I take that information as evidence that there is merit in my teaching philosophies and approach. I expect integrating them into a larger curriculum, tying courses together with these ideas in mind, will further help to develop students into impressive engineers.