1660318490518 Readerfeedbackheuristicinstruction

Reader feedback: The transition to 'heuristic' instruction

March 23, 2020
A response to Russ Rhinehart's recent column, "16 things about being an engineer that they don't teach at university."
In response to Russ Rhinehart's recent column, "16 things about being an engineer that they don't teach at university," Ralph Quigley writes:

I have 40 years of engineering experience in chemical manufacturing and development. During my last years I was responsible for “mentoring” co-ops, interns and recent engineering graduates. I was disappointed in their capabilities for the most part, but impressed by their enthusiasm. A couple of the engineering graduates seemed to be in the “sophomore state” after graduation, meaning they were treating the work place like a textbook problem, and I was responsible for setting up their tasks like a problem at the end of a chapter.

For the past two years, I have been instructing junior and senior chemical engineering students in two unit operations laboratories and two senior design courses. I've taken on the task of “heuristic" instruction, but it's frustrating to the students when they ask a question, and I reply that there is enough information available for them to determine the answer. The students are begrudgingly adapting to the new methods, but tend to go to the other extreme of not asking questions.

It has been an adjustment for me and it was comforting for me to see your article. I liked the 16-point list that you include in your article. Do you have any insight on helping these students make this learning-style change?

Ralph Quigley, pe
Chemical Engineering,
University of Alabama in Huntsville

After 13 years in industry, I decided to change from industry to an academic career, partly with a mission to fix the issues in education to better prepare students for the transition, and partly to have the freedom to explore possibilities of using first-principles models in automatic control.

During my time at Texas Tech, I believe I was somewhat successful in structuring lectures, assignments, feedback on student work, seminars, career advising, etc. to better prepare students to become faster-starting engineers. Bob Bethea, UOL instructor at TTU, shared my understanding, and we shaped the theme of the senior-year experiences as "Transition to Practice." After I moved to become head of the ChE program at Oklahoma State, I continued the efforts and exploration of methodologies to accelerate the student perspective change needed for employment.

I found that explaining to students what the transition is about and that my "way" of teaching was to help them understand the transition helped get a bit of buy-in. But even so, some students were offended that I was changing the rules. Their view is that my job was to give them the equation, show them how to use it, then test them on that same training.

Part of the issue is that research-focused universities need to hire faculty to bring in academic research funding. Teaching is a secondary value, and relevant preparation of students for careers is not even an understood topic. Receiving program accreditation, student performance on the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, and student evaluations of instructors are the complete set of metrics to assess teaching adequacy.

The inertia is humongous, and the inability of academics to understand the problem is disheartening.

I'm glad that you are another voice.

R. Russell Rhinehart
[email protected]

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