/* Added by TWP, 10/12/2012 */ /* End of addition */

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why Good Engineering Education and Research Are Inseparable? Part II - Research and Technology

Has anyone heard of foreigners clamoring to emulate the U.S. K-12 school system?  I certainly haven't.  I do receive, however, foreign delegations that want to learn how we organize academic research and graduate programs at UT Austin.  This happens at least once a month.  People around the world correctly perceive that most Tier 1 academic institutions in the U.S. are second to none and worthy of emulation.

And how about premier U.S. corporations?  Do they come to UT Austin or to the local community colleges to hire their top engineers and scientists?  Do they set up research campuses and incubators around UT or the Austin Community College?  (Please do not get me wrong, ACC is a very fine and vastly underfunded institution, which treats the most difficult cases of acute high-schoolitis and online-learnatis.  My youngest daughter, a BS graduate in premed from UC Santa Cruz, is a nursing student at ACC, and I am pleased with the quality of her program.)

Thus, it astounds me that some of the UT Regents want to convert the Texas' flagship university to an equivalent of a community college or a K-12 institution, and use economic and efficiency arguments to justify their tragic confusion.  Other than destroying Texas' top-tier education, I cannot imagine a faster path for converting our Lone Star State into a third world country.  If this "cost-saving" demolition of UT Austin happened, the U.S companies that still look for high-level skills and training would move to MIT, Georgia Tech, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Eastern Europe, India, China and so on.  Their research projects would move there too.  And top UT scientists would soon join the exodus.  In fact, my use of conditional verbs is incorrect; research has been moving to foreign countries for several years now.
So why a world-class university has to have active researchers who work on basic research and develop technology, while also teaching?  The intimate relationship between teaching and science is the answer.

Research and technology are like these two tango dancers; they dance fluently together and support each other.

The main subject of this story is the interdependence of science and research on the one hand, and technology and teaching on the other. Science is the most difficult cognitive activity of humans, not counting poetry of course. Science progresses not through a slow orderly accumulation of results, like an accountant's ledger, but through the messy, disruptive and unexpected discoveries that demolish the status quo. I repeat, a new theory or technology usually collapses the old ones and there is little peaceful coexistence.  Think of the ancient stationary phone competing with the iPhone.

Even the first-rate scientific findings (think of Nobel prizes) are not immortal - the later replace the earlier. I cannot stress enough that major scientific findings are not only made, but also abandoned. Science is in a permanent state of flux, and scientists are eternal voyagers, always going somewhere, and never arriving at a safe port. In science, there is no "there." There are only endless trips into the unknown.
So how can a non-scientist handle all this complexity, fluidity and uncertainty of science, and teach them to the next generations? Because he/she is a "Sherpa"?
I hope that you are beginning to see the clear and present danger of charging the mere teachers with education of a highly skilled technical and scientific labor force.

But it gets worse, as the inventor of the quantum theory, Max Planck, once observed:
To be sure, with every advance in science the difficulty of the task is increased; ever larger demands are made on the achievements of researchers, and the need for a suitable division of labor becomes more pressing. (Vortr├Ąge und Erinnerungen (Lectures and Recollections), 5th Ed. Stuttgart, 1949.)
Max Planck also wrote this about his two very famous teachers: "Helmholtz was never quite prepared, spoke slowly, miscalculated endlessly, and bored his listeners, while Kirchhoff spoke in carefully prepared lectures which were dry and monotonous." Not all famous scientists are the most sensational teachers, but they do educate a few Max Plancks here and there. And the young Maxes then lay the foundations for nuclear weapons and nuclear power, cancer therapies, NMR, computers, networks, iPhones, digital cameras, HDTVs, solar cells, and so on.

What about the relationship between technology and science? It is quite simple: Without new types of data of ever higher resolution, acquired with devices of ever increasing power, modern science cannot function. Thus technology provides the data gathering capability for science. Science in return provides new theory and methods to design and construct the new sensors and machines. Therefore science and technology are intertwined in an eternal tango, only more so today than yesterday. In fact, at any given moment, progress of science can occur only within the barriers set by the available technology.
What if Galileo had a Mount Palomar telescope at his disposal?

In summary, the self-anointed reformers of academia with mere business degrees are possibly the last humans capable of dealing with the exponentially growing complexity of science. They also should not be telling everyone how to run higher education. MBAs simply do not have the cognitive capacity to imagine these difficult and delicate tasks.

Through the poisonous advice to industrial managers with MBA degrees and nothing else, McKinsey Co. did more damage to industrial research in the U.S. than everyone else combined. The U.S. research labs have never quite recovered from that damage and their research has been moving to Asia and Europe.

Americans are pretty bad at understanding historic processes. For us, if it does not happen in five minutes, it does not matter. Well, the industrial research train left for other countries about 30 years ago, and it is slowly gathering speed. Excellent academic research in the U.S. is most of what is left. So let's not try too hard to destroy academia using the very same managerial approach that proved so efficient at blowing up industrial research.

Can we improve academia? Of course. I think that the U.S. scientists and teachers should work much harder on streamlining their endeavors, dividing labor, and making sure that the next generation of scientists and researchers is actually taught science, not merely accredited in huge classes with first-rate teachers, who are no scientists. We also need to teach much more math and physics to our undergraduates, so that they do not quit on us as graduate students.

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?