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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Good Engineering Education and Research Are Inseparable? Part I - Teaching

Here are two other questions related to the title:
  1. What unique benefits are given to students at all levels - from freshmen to PhD candidates - by a good engineer and scientist, who also happens to be a decent teacher? 
  2. How are these benefits different from those delivered by a credentialed, but scientifically incompetent teacher?
We keep on hearing the loud and stubborn voices that call for a strict separation of teaching from engineering practice and research. I think that these voices are tragically mistaken.

By the way, when I say "tragically," I am thinking of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. In a good Greek tragedy the audience knows the inevitable fatal outcome, but the protagonists don't.

For 22 years, I have been a teacher at two top public universities in the U.S.: UC Berkeley and UT Austin. Over time, I have taught some pretty large classes, so my statistical sample is sufficiently broad to justify the statements I shall make next.

This is what I see: Apart from a few individuals here and there - usually the first or second generation immigrants, often women, and mostly from Asia and Europe - U.S. high schools produce bright but fuzzy graduates, who can pass tests but know too little of anything, including rudiments of English grammar, punctuation, and orthography.

In my opinion, the notoriously underpaid and overworked high school school teachers who never were practicing professionals only add to the multitude of problems with the unfocused high school system in the U.S. For example, a mathematics teacher who 'took' a few college courses in math or even completed a major in math, but is not a breathing mathematician or scientist, may not properly teach mathematics or programming. Similar comments apply to the teaching of physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, and trade professions.
At a risk of repeating myself, I claim that a thoroughly accredited high school science teacher who has not been an active practitioner of what he/she teaches, and is not schooled in rigorous scientific thinking, could be harmful to the students. A Phys Ed teacher who cannot swim probably should not be teaching competitive swimming. The same remarks hold in spades for college teachers.  I find it troubling that so many tenure-track faculty in engineering never work in real world.
Those U.S. colleges that still teach, not merely accredit the clueless in exchange for sacks of cash, act as ER units that resuscitate their comatose patients and give them new life. Patient survival rate and miraculous recoveries have been superb at the two clinics where I have operated. These miracles demonstrate over and over again that the U.S. universities are still among the best or simply the best in the world.

Here is most recent of the several "thank you" emails I received from the engineering students at Berkeley. Many of these students were ready to kill me when I taught them programming.
Hi Professor Patzek- I was in your E77 class in Fall 2002 seven years ago!!!  I since graduated from Berkeley in 2005 and went to medical school.  I am now at UCSF doing brain tumor research, and I wanted you to know that I am actually using MATLAB these days to solve some key questions in brain tumor biology.

I have to admit that MATLAB really gave me a hard time in your class, and when it finished, I swore to myself that I would never use it again.  But when I started my research at UCSF, I realized that there was NO WAY I could do my work efficiently without it.  You can tell your students in your class that maybe they might have a difficult time during the class, but you learn MATLAB best when you use it.  I am learning everyday and actually went home yesterday thinking to myself that I love MATLAB!

Just wanted to let you know!

Hope you are doing well!

Your former student,

L.J. (Her non Anglo-Saxon name was obscured by TWP)
In addition to being an engineer and scientist, I am also a practicing programmer. I did not make it easy on the students, who in return evaluated me quite poorly. Many of the same students saw the light a few years later and thanked me profusely. The low student evaluations in E77 were used to admonish me during my promotion to Full Professor at Berkeley. After a scant praise of my research in the promotion letter, I was told to get my act together and teach E77 better.

The difficulty with teaching programming is similar to that with teaching piano. Only a few students will ever be concert pianists, some will become proficient in playing, but most will stop at using two fingers to play Chopin. So who do you teach to play: Those who actually might use the skill, or those who won't? In a class of 180 students, this is a tough question to answer. I tend to teach those students who express some will to be taught, however diffuse that will might be.

Back to the main story: When it comes to graduate education in engineering and science, far too many U.S. students choose not to compete with foreigners; those Americans are simply too limited when it comes to calculus, physics, chemistry, perspective, ambition, perseverance, and so on. They also want to make too much money too soon, and have no patience for waiting and earning the commensurate knowledge. When it comes to PhD projects in petroleum engineering, close to no U.S. citizens apply, unless the economy is really bad.

Have you ever tried to answer this unsettling question: Why does the sum of science education in high schools and undergraduate colleges in most foreign countries exceed that in the U.S.? In other words, why so many foreign students from so many foreign universities are better prepared/more willing than natives to take on graduate education in science and engineering in the U.S.? If my argument about high school science teachers is wrong, i.e., these teachers cannot do more than they already are doing, then we are left with the general unwillingness of U.S. college graduates to get a graduate degree in science or engineering, perhaps commingled with greed.

I should add that the undergraduate students of petroleum engineering at UT Austin are among the best in the world. I am not saying this because I want to be nice; it is a statement of a measurable fact. These bright motivated students, however, are not interested in graduate studies, and in becoming researchers and faculty. They want to get out as quickly as possible, conquer the world, and make fortunes while at it. Therein lies our problem of having 80-90 percent of foreign-born graduate students, especially at the PhD level.

Next, I will tell you about the subtle dance that entwines technology and research, and their sexy relationship with teaching.

P.S. Both my son, who is finishing his doctorate, and a knowledgeable UT faculty friend tell me that I am wrong about the high school teachers being insufficiently prepared to teach sciences in depth.  Perhaps I am, but I still want this possibility to be left open for discussion.  This is what my son wrote:
I started editing the first opinion piece, but I stopped because I had some fundamental issues with the argument. First of all, I don't think you are commenting on K-12 teachers, because why should an elementary school teacher be a professional mathematician to teach 3rd grade level math. You are really speaking about high school level math and science teachers. But even so I am not convinced that a high school teacher needs to be a professional engineer working for Boeing or a programmer working for Google to be effective. I agree that a greater amount of training should be required of high school level math and science teachers, but how can we expect them to also have professional careers outside of being a full-time teacher? I'm actually not entirely sure what your argument is. I think you make a more effective argument about the American desire for immediate money/power/gratification. But this isn't the same argument as what you begin the piece with. My personal belief is that Americans are supported in laziness over hard work and expect too much too soon. However, this is no longer an American problem so much as a global instant-gratification, technology-supported phenomenon. This isn't really a problem of teaching as much as it is a societal problem encompassing everything from politics, to marketing-is-God, music and arts, to whatever. 
My son's statement about the international scope of problems with finding good graduate students is true.  I just taught two short courses to second-year PhD students in Poland, and with two or three exceptions those students were thoroughly unmotivated, while being overly pampered and too generously supported.

P.S.P.S.  This comment was sent to me by email:

I'll give a brief anecdote and you'll have to take my word that it is representative of many situations in many high schools. During my second year of teaching high school math, my department chair was a young teacher with 3 years of experience -- mostly 9th grade remedial math (is this someone who is highly qualified?). We were looking over state test results, and she suggested that we take an average of the scaled score for our classes as a measure of our performance as teachers. Besides having a problem with being evaluated professionally based on how my students performed on a test for which they are not held personally accountable (!) I had a problem with this averaging methodology. The scale score on a standardized test is not on a linear scale. Scale scores range from, for example, 1052 to 3041 (2010-2011 9th grade TAKS math test), with 1052 representing a raw score of 0/52 and 3041 representing a raw score of 52/52. The correlation between raw and scaled scores is something approaching a high (5th or 6th degree) order polynomial. A passing score is 2100, which is equivalent to 28/52 or 54%.

I wasn't saying the average scale score would be meaningless, just that it wouldn't mean quite what my department chair was suggesting. Shouldn't it have at least been obvious that the scale score that corresponded to the average of the raw scores would not be the same as the average of the scale scores? She (and most of the department) failed to comprehend, and I was labeled as a troublemaker because of such and similar objections.

Another objection was to the use and evaluation of what they called “rigor.” In plain English, rigor means something difficult, something that takes some effort and hard work. Education “professionals” (I use the term loosely), define rigor in a similar manner, but evaluate its presence in a classroom or lesson quite differently, muddying up the concept with psycho-babble about knowledge taxonomy and continua of thinking. I thought it was highly misleading and almost manipulative to describe (to parents and the public) a curriculum as rigorous (or relevant, for that matter) according to the framework outlined in the link provided. I pointed this out to one of our consultants and was later reprimanded for being uncooperative. And at the same time as being made to spend my planning periods in “professional development” sessions where I was retaught the "real" meaning of rigor and relevance, I was taken aside and told by the principal and said consultant that I wasn’t “dumbing down” my lessons enough. This is the double-talk so characteristic of all politicians, school principals and superintendents included.

In other words, the public education system is a hostile environment. I was told by multiple veteran teachers that there is just no getting around administrators who want things to be done their way (right or wrong), no matter where you go. You just keep your mouth shut about things that are wrong, or you somehow ingratiate yourself to whoever is at the top at that moment (risking your downfall with his inevitable departure), and perhaps get his ear and his confidence (while sacrificing your pride and integrity). I suppose this is what I am to expect in any type of work environment, so I am trying to get used to the idea, but it still chafes me.

Perhaps it is a not a matter, then, of lacking a workforce prepared for and capable of teaching good mathematics in public schools, it is just that the public school system is not a place where a person with the
adequate background tends to get along very well. In my experience, that is. The teachers could do more, but they aren’t allowed to because of politics and greed in school administration, and a number of other societal ills (lack of discipline, family planning and family participation, value of education, etc).

The problem with the education system does reach down into the elementary grades. I would not say that had my high school education been better, I would be better off. I went to a high school with exemplary science and math programs. Nor could I say that the undergrad program I completed was in any way inadequate. The problem is in how young children are fundamentally taught to learn and think mathematically. It is done in such a hokey and short-sighted way. Students are often no longer even required to memorize the basic arithmetic facts and algorithms that would speed up their computations and algebraic manipulations. But even when I was in school and those things were required, we weren’t really taught about the structure of mathematics. Logic and set theory were brief topics in 10th grade geometry (or in special classes my parents would take me to during the summer and after school), and are now almost completely absent, believed irrelevant. Most teachers wouldn’t know how to teach them anyway. I would have had to study them to be prepared, and now realize how important it is for students to become familiar with these ideas at a young age. Trivium, quadrivium, apprenticeship? Does this mean I am getting old?

1 comment:

  1. The post blames high school teachers who you say 'took a few college courses.' In most states for the last 20 years they have been required to have a full college major. This has not stopped the press and policy makers from blaming the low standards of Ed schools.

    It has become far too socially acceptable to insult public school teachers. But to the extent that they really are not vibrant professionals (and there is absolutely some truth in this) universities are largely to blame. The quality of education in our own undergraduate majors is part of the problem, as is the support and continuing education we provide afterward.

    The low student evaluations you discuss next give hints to the problem. For example, the physics education research community has established pretty convincingly that there are techniques one can use in classes that make a profound difference in the fraction of the class that ultimately understands the material. Largely this has to do with structuring the class to force all the students to be active. It is not a matter of being likable, and does not raise student evaluation scores (that is a separate problem, with some orthogonal solutions that don't work for everyone).

    But in short: our part of the blame is that we persist in using less than the best teaching methods for undergraduates that let too large a fraction of them through without really understanding material at the time. Our future teachers are among them, and some of them go off and teach without every coming to understand the material as well as we would hope

    As for graduate students coming from abroad, we should debate whether this is a problem or a stroke of genius. Why should the US pay even one penny to educate its own citizens when we can get the rest of the world to educate its best students at their own expense, send them to us for graduate school where they pay their way by teaching and research, and we get to choose the best to keep?

    It's a stroke of genius, but an evil stroke of genius, and explains much of the unwillingness of the US to invest in its own educational system. We take the influx from abroad for granted.

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