I love teaching. I hate grading.
I love making resources available to students and setting a framework for them to explore and learn within. This includes not only challenging, useful, important, relevant (to them) problems and projects, but also fun, beautiful and exciting experiences.
Early in my career my teaching was all about content: proper organization and dynamic delivery of lectures, detailed instructions for laboratories (I taught our Measurements Laboratory course for far too many years), deriving the fundamental governing equations of fluid physics and demonstrating their use in problem solutions step by step. Good stuff but… dry. Pun intended.
Students were induced to learn, or at least demonstrate competence, with the lash of grades. They were trained to race through homework sets and exams like greyhounds, eager for the reward of points. This type of motivation is extrinsic; they are learning for a grade. Did they leave my courses valuing, appreciating fluids, thermodynamics, heat transfer? Maybe some did, but engineering education research suggests that many did not. After all, students consider these to be difficult topics.
Fostering Intrinsic Motivation: Twain VS Feynman
I knew that I was missing the mark in motivating students, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I tried to demonstrate relevance using real industrial applications, knowing that at least half of our students would have an industry sponsored senior design project involving fluids, and most of our students were headed for a career in industry. Well, OK, ‘real’ is a relative term. The fundamental equations of fluid mechanics need complex computer models to solve accurately, so analytic solutions that undergraduates can do require a lot of assumptions, which make students uncomfortable. Still, I wrote unique problems, some taken from my experience as a volunteer firefighter, some from my research and others from everyday fluids experiences, such as how those big sewer sucker trucks work, how much pressure does a fire sprinkler need, how much resistance is in the human blood capillary bed, and what happens when you flush a toilet. Even with these important applications, my enthusiasm and strong fundamentals, students were not reporting great motivation, and I couldn’t blame them. Knowing you are going to need information and skills in a theoretical future (a year is still forever to a 20-year-old) is not sufficient motivation to actually learn something in the present. At the same time, my students’ obvious focus on earning points instead of learning the content was wearing me down. I became dismayed when so many office hour interactions involved grading including “hey, I know I got this wrong, but can I have a few more points anyways?” I started searching for a way to increase intrinsic motivation, to get students to actually like fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, etc. or at least enjoy the process of learning for its own sake.
I began to wonder if our relentless emphasis on the utility of engineering was part of the problem. One way to describe this issue is the framing of Twain vs Feynman, developed in 2015 by my PhD student Katherine Goodman, now an assistant professor and associate director of InWorks, at CU Denver (similar to our ATLAS Institute). When Mark Twain was young, he loved watching the Mississippi river; it was beautiful to him. Then he trained as a riverboat pilot and learned that swirls and ripples indicated subsurface hazards that could wreck his boat. “Now when I had mastered the language of this water … I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”
(Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Ebook, 2004, 1883. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/245.)
Most of our students can identify with this experience. There is a large body of research that shows that students leave many STEM courses thinking the topic is less interesting, less important and less relevant than when they started. They are sick of it. They dislike it. This is called a ‘negative shift in affect’. Simply disliking a subject after studying it is often given as a reason for changing majors.
This negative shift is in stark contrast to physicist Richard Feynman’s story: “I have a friend who’s an artist … he’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says, ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty… I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty…the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t see how it subtracts.”
(Feynman, Richard P. “What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character”. Edited by Ralph Leighton. Reprint edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.)
Those of us who have become professors are firmly in the Feynman camp, but traditional pedagogy has led to our students ending up like Twain.
How can we turn them, divert them into Feynmans?
Initially, I had hoped that demonstrating my own enthusiasm for my course topics (I found aspects to love in all of them) would increase my students’ affect. Students appreciated my enthusiasm, but did not adopt it themselves.
Then I created and taught my Flow Visualization course, and everything changed. I had stumbled onto a combination of pedagogical techniques that seemed to unlock my students’ intrinsic motivation. It seemed that they created amazing works because they wanted to. Students told me that I had changed their lives, that ever after they saw fluid physics everywhere. The inception of this course is described in my research statement because I became desperate to understand what it was about the Flow Vis course that works so well, and began research to find out. I want this transformation in student attitudes for all my courses! For all of our courses. I believe that my most important job as a professor now is to foster this transformation. Once a student is truly, intrinsically motivated, then they will learn; they will find a way to learn. The gates of knowledge are open now. All the details of our engineering disciplines are available online. Excellent recorded lectures are out there, as are inexpensive textbooks, problem sets, and exams. Yes, all these resources need curation, that is still important. Having a community and a mutual structured experience is also still important because learning is a social activity, even for introverts. But teaching Flow Vis showed me that there can be a better way, that we can make Feynmans instead of Twains.
The Flow Vis course represented a badly designed experiment, in that many factors were all changed at once. Aesthetics and art were introduced as motivation for doing science and engineering. Carefully crafted laboratory experiences were abandoned in favor of turning students loose in their kitchens, backyards and laboratories (with strict safety guidelines; students love combustion) with instructions to ‘make cool images and videos of fluid flows and write about them’. Point-based grading was eliminated as a motivation for achievement in favor of authentic publication and critique. Students from diverse academic backgrounds were put together on teams. Lecture content was loaded with physics, but using a minimum of mathematics, to keep the course friendly for fine arts students.
Was one of these changes the magic ingredient? A subset of them? In what combination? To what extent?
I began scholarship in teaching and learning (SOTL): reading literature in discipline-based education research (DBER) and participating in CU’s noteworthy DBER community, applying what I learned to my courses and beginning to apply a professional, research-oriented approach to my course modifications and to my teaching practices overall. I attended the National Engineering Teaching Institute (I and II in 2012). In 2006 I was a participant in FTEP’s PTLC, which paired experienced education researchers with novices. At the same time I began a series of experiments in course design. Here my teaching philosophy and education research become inextricably entwined.
I first wanted to test whether simply adding a visual aesthetics component to an engineering discipline would do the trick. I wanted a discipline which is pervasive in our environment but generally unrecognized so I could observe an expansion of perception and hopefully a transformative experience (see the research statement for definitions). In 2009 I piloted a one credit course called “Perception of Design” in which students made photographs of mechanical design exemplars and reported on them. Similar to the Flow Vis course students were instructed in basic photography and optics, had freedom to choose their subjects, and the publication, critique expectations, and grading scheme were the same. I got a lot of images of sports equipment and a few cars, and some superficial design analyses but no impressive work. Surveys indicated no transformative experiences. Enrollment was lackluster, while Flow Vis consistently had waitlists. This was contrary to typical elective enrollment in our department; students generally prefer design to thermo-fluids topics. I tried tweaking a few aspects, but gave up on this approach after three offerings.
Aesthetics In Design
What was missing? I searched for clues in the Flow Vis survey data. One potential ingredient that emerged was that students were having a creative experience that was missing from the rest of our curriculum. Mechanical engineering requires some degree of creativity in problem solving (that utility again) and design, but our students are never offered free rein in choosing their design projects, nor are they given the opportunity to own all aspects of a design; instead they are expected to contribute only in the context of a team project. I pondered how to increase the degree of creativity and agency for students in an aesthetics-oriented design course, and eventually the central concept for “Aesthetics in Design” surfaced. My research group has now distilled this hypothesis as ‘creative aesthetics is the conduit for a transformative experience with Feynman attitudes as the goal’.
I piloted Aesthetics of Design in Maymester 2014 with the assistance of two co-instructors, Hunter Ewin and Jiffer Harriman. Our paper describing the course won a Best of DEED (Design in Engineering Education Division) Paper award (one of five) at ASEE’s 122nd Annual Conference and Exposition. I’ve taught the course on my own since then five times, evolving it with each iteration based on survey data and class interviews. Course content now includes a survey of contemporary aesthetics, a history of 20th and 21st century design movements, a case study of chairs, brief biographies of a few contemporary designers, and a look at design competition winners. Students have complete control over their choice of projects within very broad guidelines: a warmup project must use upcycled/recycled materials and a main project which must be dynamic in some way. Aesthetics must be a major consideration for both projects. In keeping with the requirement for authentic publication, students write weekly blog posts about their work which are published on the course website http://aesdes.org. This site, like http://flowvis.org is high in Google rankings and gets hundreds of hits per day.
This course (AesDes) has been much more successful than Perception of Design, but is not yet quite as impactful as Flow Vis. Our most recent surveys from Spring 2021 showed an increase in engineering identity (this was an unexpected benefit) and an expansion of perception, but not much evidence for transformative experiences, in contrast to previous semesters. The pandemic might be to blame; the course was taught remotely and students had limited access to manufacturing facilities on campus. And we’ve all seen how exhausted and stressed our students are.
Applications to Teaching from Education Research
The development of the Flow Vis and AesDes courses are examples of one aspect of my approach to teaching, emphasizing that aesthetics are a valid motivation for science and engineering and it can enrich their professional lives regardless of their career path. There are a few more concepts from my engineering education research and scholarship that I’ve applied in an additional courses that I’d like to highlight next.
Active learning has dominated STEM education reform for the past 15 years or more. Ironically, often seminars by DBER researchers on some aspect of active learning research rarely employ the techniques they are investigating. This has inspired me to develop a course for early career instructors, assistant professors and post docs, focused on ‘walk the talk’: the Evidence-Based Introduction to Teaching (EBIT). Please see my service statement for more information about the content. EBIT gets a bit recursive. Many of the participants have never experienced a student-centered environment as students themselves. In EBIT, participants get that experience while learning about course design, assessment and active learning via active learning techniques. For example, after highlighting the learning objectives for the day and a short lecture introducing essentials of how to design learning objectives, participants develop objectives for a hypothetical class session in their own discipline using a think-pair-share approach (i.e. think about it on your own, then exchange ideas with a partner). Later when we are discussing active learning techniques, students recall their own experience with think-pair-share. Teaching EBIT allowed me to collect and practice new evidence-based techniques myself which have found their way into my courses and presentations. For example, I now routinely include some sort of audience participation whenever I give a ‘talk’.
In addition to pursuing how to increase intrinsic motivation in my students, I have worked on improving assessment and grading. The more I’ve learned about summative assessments such as exams the more deficient they seemed to me. As engineering educators, we don’t have the expertise to devise unbiased measurements of what a student knows or is capable of. We never consider issues of sensitivity, reliability, repeatability, dynamic range or accuracy in our psychometric measurements, despite our expertise in the realm of physical measurements. Students and employers have unjustified faith in the accuracy of our grades, even believing discernment to three significant figures! Students believe that a good grade means they have learned the material, and that a bad one means they did not. I have 30 years’ experience writing exams. I can write a ‘good’ exam and get the average score and distribution I aim for, covering whatever learning objectives I have. But having written the exam, seen the responses and interacted with the students, I still see how the exam has failed as a true assessment. Exams succeed to some degree in getting students to study and synthesize the material, but this is a formative outcome, and exams cannot prepare students for authentic engineering practices. Yes, there are ‘right answers’ that engineers must be able to reach. Correct vs incorrect analyses. Clear communication of analyses vs impenetrable scribbles. Our students need training in these, and homework sets and exams are one way to achieve this training but no course should stop there.
Instead, I am working with several different approaches to de-emphasize grades and exams. I use low-stakes formative assessments extensively; I’ve found I need only offer what I call a ‘whiff of credit’, a tiny amount of credit that acknowledges student participation. In class I use active learning methods such as clicker questions, worksheets, and group problem solving. I publish 10 years’ worth of solved homework sets and exams for students in my fluids courses, and invite them to practice extensively and self-test, acknowledging completion only. This also keeps the playing field even by giving all students access to these resources.
I now offer projects in all my courses; students tackle open-ended questions that require them to seek out readings independently, and produce a written report at the end of the semester. I used to shy away from projects; the thought of reading and grading all those reports (my classes have had enrollments up to 175) was overwhelming. A co-instructor, Peter Mitrano, convinced me to give it a try some years ago. I’ve since evolved techniques to manage the work and reported on these to my community (http://www.jeanbizhertzberg.com/2019/11/21/projects-in-fluids-courses-made-easy-for-you-the-instructor/). First, provide a detailed rubric lays out explicit expectations. Next, assign projects to student pairs. There are techniques for doing this smoothly as well. Be clear about the quality of the references they may use. I don’t expect undergraduates to exclusively read archival journal articles, but they are not allowed to reference grade-school level YouTube videos either. I provide scaffolding in the form of intermediate milestones so that students are not overwhelmed at the last minute. Most importantly, I teach the students about critique, so they can evaluate their peers work constructively and accurately.
When I started teaching Flow Vis, I was hesitant to comment on the actual artistry displayed. I found that engineering students were even more hesitant than I was, and would sit mutely during critique sessions. I began reading about critique and feedback methods used in various disciplines. I found a fair amount describing traditional practices in business and the arts, but only a small amount of credible research in the business, education and psychology literatures. One approach that I’ve become a fan of is the Critical Response Process by Liz Lerman. Admittedly, it is missing the scholarly component; I’ve not found any studies of the efficacy of the overall method. This is a potential research project for the future. In any case, I’ve been using aspects of it for the past few years in all my courses and I’ve seen dramatic improvements in both the quantity and quality of the feedback students offer during peer reviews. In oral presentations I’ve found that if I can just keep my mouth shut a student will pipe up with the exact critique I was thinking of, and do it in a more constructive way. An additional bonus is that student feedback to me is also more thoughtful and constructive.
The last approach I’ve been experimenting with is ungrading, the topic of a workshop I presented for the Center for Teaching and Learning last year. There are a variety of techniques, described in writings by Jesse Stommel, Alfie Kohn, Susan Blum and others. In my implementation I give students normal feedback during the semester, and then at the end of the semester I ask students to write me a short paragraph describing what grade they think they have earned, and why. I compare their assessment to whatever measures I have for them from the semester. Unless I see a significant disconnect, I give them the grade they ask for. I’ve found them to be remarkably similar to my own assessments. This has completely eliminated grade-begging, and I appreciate students’ self-reflections.
To my amazement and joy, I found that following my aesthetic inclinations, coupled with a scholarly evidence-based approach has allowed me to teach in a way that focuses on student motivation and learning, and avoid the negative consequences of our grade-dominated culture.