“to teach is not to transfer knowledge but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge’
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage
My mantra, “B students rock,” means to me that the best learning happens when students engage with the environment, the community, and the material. I want them to take risks because deep and complete learning is more important than making an “A.” My teaching philosophy is a calling to create the environment that will nurture and facilitate risk taking and depths of learning.
As a community college faculty member, I am responsible for teaching two types of courses: general education and program courses. General education seeks to prepare students for success in life. In general education, it’s not enough to teach how to solve physics problems, or even the origins of physics. The knowledge and skill should have lasting value. My approach is to find some substantial elements with ongoing value and provide a take-away that will stay with the class long after they have forgotten Maxwell’s Laws.
For example, in physics problem-solving, I emphasize three skills:
1. Estimating the answer by orders of magnitude;
2. Deciding whether an answer is reasonable;
3. Using prefixes and exponents of ten without error.
These skills span several levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, exercising higher order thinking skills. The practical take-away, being able to estimate price, dosage, or tax, and knowing whether it is reasonable, is a valuable skill that will serve anyone.
Content for my physics class includes stories of the scientists who laid the foundation of the discipline. For example, Michael Faraday was a man of humble origin who devised the means to educate himself. He became one of the most respected scientists in modern history, influencing the work of James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein. Knowing that there are different self-directed paths to success is a lesson that I want my students to keep and cherish from our class.
While general education uses content as a platform to develop life skills, program courses in the engineering students’ discipline help students build knowledge and skills that directly pertain to the practice of engineering. The first discipline course is a critical juncture for engineering students where they first time use math in applications with open-ended problems leading to multiple solution methods. The practitioner must use judgment, make assumptions, and present the answer in a context that acknowledges uncertainty. Successful problem solving requires a combination of discipline and free-range thinking. As a teacher, I can model some examples of problem solving, but teaching engineering is more than copying answers from a book. The role is closer to coach, providing useful feedback and reinforcing again and again messages such as, “you can do this; you have the way of engineering within you.”
For both types of courses, my greatest contribution is to create a classroom community that facilitates learning and an atmosphere of belonging among its members. By organizing learning squads, teams, or groups and modeling collaborative learning within our classroom community, I equip learners with tools and practices that will increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and pleasure of their learning. In engineering classes, I can offer anecdotes from my professional practice that help students understand what engineering looks like and explore how they fit into the larger engineering community. In non-engineering classes, I contrast our class practices with engineering to highlight the differences. For example, I may explain that engineers use Kirchhoff’s Laws to derive complete mathematical solutions to complicated circuits; however, in our class, we seek to understand the underlying principles, that current entering a node equals current leaving the node (like traffic at an intersection!).
Engineering curricula have evolved over the years, with new courses (such as Biology for Engineers) replacing many courses and topics that I studied as an undergraduate (such as Machine Shop and Engineering Design Graphics). As a former engineer in industry, I recognize that most of what engineers do on the job is not taught in school. The selection of topics I teach in introductory classes is not as important as helping the students develop their engineering identity and understand engineering in the context of the larger society. For that reason, my introductory engineering courses are aimed at helping students “know what engineers know and do what engineers do.”
The overarching purpose of introductory and disciplinary engineering courses is to guide the community toward a feeling of “belonging” in the engineering profession, which is a major factor in an engineer’s future success. To this end, I devote much energy to being a faculty sponsor for clubs, to advising students, and to generally having a presence on campus and letting students know that I am a resource. My most important work as a faculty member is the stuff that I don’t get paid for!