Gas station without pumps

2013 February 9

Becoming engineers

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:23
Tags: , , , ,

In The Art of Becoming Yourself, Chad Hanson discussed the hard-to-measure cultural value of a university education.  I was particularly struck by his statement:

Educators spend a good deal of energy testing critical-thinking ability and, frankly, are frustrated with the results. One reason we have difficulty producing critical thinking is that we separate thinking from thinkers. We treat critical thinking as if it were a free-floating ability when, in fact, it is a function of oneself or one’s identity. Critical thinking is a way of positioning oneself toward a problem. For critical thinking to take place, students must first come to think of themselves as people who are willing to take a critical stance in relation to an issue.

This resonated with me because I’m trying to teach the bioengineering students in my circuits courses to “think like engineers“, but I had not thought of the problem in quite the way that Dr. Hanson put it.  My goal is not to have students “take a critical stance”, but to be able to solve problems that they have never seen before.

I’m really trying to make the students see themselves as engineers, rather than as students—to have them think of themselves as people who can look at a problem and decompose it into solvable subproblems, as people who are willing to explore possibilities without knowing that there is a correct answer in the back of the book, and as people who can design solutions.

I want them to think “let me look on the data sheet” and “let me measure that and see”, rather than asking “is this right?”

I want them to look at a breadboard that isn’t working, and start by checking each wire to see if it is consistent with the schematic, rather than just calling the TA or me over for help  (80% of the debugging I’ve done for students is pointing out that their wiring doesn’t match their schematic).

I want them to draw their own schematics, checking to make sure they know what each wire and component is for, not just copying and pasting someone else’s. I want them to check their schematics to be sure they haven’t shorted power and ground, and that every input and output is appropriately wired, not left dangling.

I want them to do quick sanity checks on every calculation or design decision, asking “is that consistent with what we know already?” and “are the units right?”

They’re all capable of doing these things, when told to, but they have not yet changed themselves to the point where they tell themselves these things without being nudged.

If they forget in a year how to compute the corner frequency of an RC filter, I’ll be only mildly disappointed—if they need it, they can look it up or rederive it in a few minutes.  But if they forget that they can rederive  formulas from a few simple principles, rather than having to memorize or look up solutions to every possible problem, I will have failed.  If they forget or don’t learn how to decompose problems into subproblems, or how to write a design report that can be understood by people who’ve not read any prior problem statement, then I will have failed.  If they forget to look at datasheets or to do consistency checks on their own work and that of their colleagues, I will have failed.

Dr. Hanson quotes Alexander Astin:

In his classic What Matters in College?, he concludes, “The student’s peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years.” As educators, we assume that students enroll in our classes for the sake of the learning outcomes listed on our syllabi. The truth is that learning outcomes are actually a small part of the endeavor. The postsecondary ritual is a large and life-changing experience.

That suggests to me that it will take the students helping each other to make the change to thinking like engineers.  I can give them exercises and labs in which engineering thinking is valuable, and I can give them questions to ask themselves, but it may take the students asking each other these questions for the change in their ways of thinking to become part of who they are.


  1. Thoughtful and particularly timely for those of us whose kids are in the process of choosing colleges to apply to. Thanks!

    Comment by hedwigeon — 2013 February 9 @ 22:25 | Reply

  2. I appreciate the opening quote’s emphasis on critical thinking being a function of one’s identity. The aspect I’m wrestling with right now is helping students become people who are open about what they don’t know (my students will do practically anything rather than explain what they don’t know). I’ve been reading Learning To Think Things Through, and I keep going back to the author’s point (I’m paraphrasing) that critical thinking is not thinking that criticizes: it is thinking that has criteria. You’re articulating the criteria to which you want your students to hold their thinking; they’re articulating a different set of criteria. It makes me wonder what the students see as the difference between “studying engineering,” “doing engineering”, and “being an engineer.”

    Comment by Mylene DiPenta — 2013 February 10 @ 13:47 | Reply

  3. Incidentally, I notice that Hanson discusses Academically Adrift with mixed feelings. I’d be curious to know your thoughts about that study, particularly about their research methods, if you have the time and inclination.

    Comment by Mylene DiPenta — 2013 February 10 @ 13:52 | Reply

    • I’ve not read Academically Adrift. I don’t know whether I’ll ever have the time (or the desire) to do so.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 February 10 @ 14:55 | Reply

  4. They need to to own the problem. Once they do, critical thinking is pretty automatic — it’s your problem, you want to solve it, you want to know all about it. You are personally interested.

    And yes peer learning is the best learning. Head over to the Ed Department, and you’ll hear all about “constructivism:” essentially, social learning. Give them a problem and just enough info to start work as a group. Let them progress until they get stuck, and then give them _almost_ enough information to get to the next point. So that they’re always experimenting. And when they’re well and truly engaged in the problem solving, _then_ you stop and give them a lecture — which they will listen to intently, because they recognize that it gives them the way forward on the problems that they’ve already engaged in together, and own.

    They teach all the students in the MA Teaching program about constructivism; too bad there’s no place for it in the public schools, or darned little. Why I didn’t become a teacher.

    Comment by Boomer — 2013 February 11 @ 09:32 | Reply

    • Some people say there is too much “constructivism” in public schools, as it is not a panacea for all educational problems. As I understand the term, it is not at all synonymous with “social learning”, though both are currently popular in education schools.

      I’m certainly using some constructivist practices in my circuits class, as the class is centered on the designs they do in the labs, not on the lectures, and I’m asking my students to build mental models that they can use to solve design problems, rather than spoon-feeding them formulas. It is not as easy as you seem to think to get students to “own the problem” and many of them get stuck very early, so I find it necessary to give them assistance earlier than a pure “constructivist” would.

      Given the rather low success rates of the Ed Departments of the US in training teachers to teach students to think like engineers, I’m not sure I want to listen to them spout off on their current theories about how I should teach. I read a lot of teacher blogs and some education literature (mainly by computer science, math, and physics teachers), looking for teaching techniques that have been successful and that I think I can adapt to my classes. I’m looking more for “content pedagogy”—specific misconceptions students have with the material I’m trying to teach and ways to get students past those misconceptions—than for generic “how to teach” information.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 February 11 @ 10:28 | Reply

  5. One problem with getting the students to “think like an engineer” is determining if the students see “thinking like an engineer” being an important part of their Community of Practice. In “Situated Learning,” Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger consider a variety of informal/semi-formal learning situations (e.g., learning to become an East African tailor, learning to become a midwife and a butcher) and analyze how they work. They describe learning as being a process of identifying a community of practice, and then seeking to be a fully connected (central) member of that community of practice. It’s hard to get students to learn things that aren’t part of the students’ perception of what’s core to their CoP, because they’re not motivated to learn that. We dealt with this in MediaComp by essentially “imagineering” a story about why what we were teaching *was* central to their CoP:

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2013 February 13 @ 17:32 | Reply

    • I’m not sure that the students have any idea what their “Community of Practice” is. I suspect that none of them has met a working bioengineer (for that matter, I’m not sure I have met any recently). It is hard for them to figure out what their “Community of Practice” is, if they have no contact with the community.

      Most (all?) of them are in the biomolecular engineering track and none in the bioelectronics track (because the EE undergrad director has a mistaken notion about what sort of course I’m teaching, thinking that it must be high-school level electronics, because the bioengineers aren’t EE students, and so he won’t accept my course as a prereq for any EE courses). Their being in the biomolecular track means that they don’t see circuits as an integral part of their training. I’ve tried to make the labs come as close to biomolecular stuff as I can, while still keeping them feasible.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 February 13 @ 19:10 | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: