Sunday, March 30, 2008


Gordon RakitaGordon Rakita
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
I write this from Vancouver, Canada where for the past four days I have been attending the annual Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meetings. (And yes, the city is beautiful and it did snow while I was here!) As with other meetings of this genre, they consist of long uninterrupted blocks of presentations by scholars. The presentations are clustered into topical symposia and there are typically a dozen symposia running concurrently in both the morning and in the afternoon.

To give you a sample of a typical day, on Thursday I participated in a symposium in the morning that had approximately 10 papers (2.5 hours). There was an hour break for lunch, and then I attended a symposium in the afternoon, logging another 2.5 hours of sitting in a darkened room watching presentation after presentation. Presentations vary at the SAA meetings. Some are highly theoretical; others describe the results of recent excavations. Some present the results of sophisticated chemical analyses; others explain sampling strategies or statistical results. Some symposium are scheduled for large ballrooms as the organizers expect a large audience of interested members, others are placed in more modest sized rooms. 95% of presenters use PowerPoint these days.

These meetings can be very draining. By the end of the second day, most of us respond to inquiries about our wellbeing with phrases like “I don’t think I can sit through another paper today.” Bare in mind, this is not because the presentations are bad; indeed they are often quite good. It is simply that the amount of information we attempt to absorb during this four day bacchanalia of archaeology is overwhelming. Most of us are physically and mentally exhausted when we gratefully climb on the plane home.

But sitting in the back of one of those dark rooms one day I let my mind wander to a comparison of attending these sorts of meetings and attending classes at a university. The similarities are considerable and I think illuminating.

Let’s take for example the schedule of a hypothetical, full-time, freshman. She enrolls in five, 3-credit hour classes. This means that she will have 15 hours of class time to attend each week. Typically students will try to arrange their schedule to meet other commitments or interests, but let’s imagine that our student has spread her courses across the full working week. That’s three hours of class time each day.

Now what does our intrepid student’s class time consist of? Well, since she’s a freshman, most of her courses are going to be surveys or introductory courses. Some will be large lecture hall classes with 200 students; others will be smaller, say with 25 classmates. Many of these courses will be heavily lecture-based, with the professor presenting information using PowerPoint slides filled with text and images. Individual classes will range from 50 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes long.

So, our hypothetical student is essentially attending an SAA-style symposium each and every week day. If I asked my colleagues here at the meetings if they would like to do that, they’d look at me as if I had had too many over-priced ales at the hotel bar last night (as a matter of fact, I did). Simply put, they would react with horror at the idea. Why? Because, as I mentioned earlier, these meetings are draining. Well, why?

Here’s my point. Despite the fact that we are archaeologists attending symposia on topics of great interest to us, the presentations we attend are not that much different than any lecture. Presentations are filled with ideas and information that we are desperately trying to assimilate and retain at high speed. Most presentations are good, but some are not so good. The presenter rambles, goes over time, uses cruddy slides or tables of data. Some presenters do not articulate an overarching important question that frames their talk. Others talk in monotone. The darkened room is stifling with people and the blur of presentations makes your eyelids heavy.

The same things that make a presentation at a professional meeting a draining experience are the same things that make a lecture at a university draining. We faculty attend these sorts of events for a few days each year; students attend them five days a week for 16 weeks. On the other hand, the things that make for an interesting and engaging symposium apply to university lectures. Good presentations have a well crafted question or goal or theme. This question/goal/theme should be presented in such a way as to draw the listener and make him or her interested in the content of the presentation. Good presentations walk the audience through the material cleanly and clearly. And in the end, good presentations return to the question/goal/theme and tie up loose ends. But overall, a good presentation is engaging, compelling, and entertaining. Yes, I said entertaining.

My brother likes to refer to what I do as “edu-tainment.” I’m not sure I have a good rebuttal for that. On the one hand, I know that when students are engaged and attending to the activities in a class, then they learn better. So if a bit of entertainment does that, who am I to scoff at it. On the other hand, I do know that by brother’s term has a more pejorative connotation. That I’m actually a very low paid entertainer (do stand up comics make more that college professors?) and that perhaps the entertainment aspect of my classes might degrade the actual learning. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that I appreciated those speakers this week who took the time to develop and engaging and entertaining presentation. Because if you asked me if I wanted to spend 2.5 hours each day attending presentations, I’d ask you if you had too many over-priced ales at the hotel bar last night.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Engineering Education

Chiu ChoiChiu Choi

Electrical Engineering

In January I directed one of the design teams in my EEL4915 Electrical Engineering Design II course to participate in a national engineering design contest (the Freescale Green Design Challenge). Three weeks ago we were notified that our team was listed among the top ten finalists. It was very good news because the ten finalists were selected from 65 participants from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and other countries in Central and South Americas. UNF is the only university selected in the United States.

Last week I received a call from one of my former students. He told me that he read about the news in the Times Union website and congratulated me. He then asked me to read the responses from the readers. (

The first response was: “nerds.” It did not bother me because there were nicer comments from other readers. But it did raise a question for me: “Is there any correlation between engineering education and nerdy behaviors?” I did some research and found a publication[1] written by a former President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In the paper, the author argued that modern engineering education reflected a liberal arts education. If this were true, then the correlation is minimal because liberal arts education has not been known to produce nerds.

The author stated that “the term liberal arts was derived from Medieval Latin, viz., artes liberales, which included studies in the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music).” It appears that trivium is concerned with developing literacy and communication skills and quadrivium is for dealing with the physical world. The author said that “modern liberal arts programs had evolved from this foundation and continued to focus on developing critical thinking skills, an ability to communicate, and the capacity for continuous learning.”

The author further stated the following. “The Engineering Criteria 2000 of ABET[2] may be interpreted in terms of artes liberales. Criterion 3 Program Outcomes specifies eleven specific attributes that graduates of accredited engineering programs must attain at graduation. These attributes can be rearranged according to their membership in the trivium and quadrivium.

-Ability to function on multidisciplinary teams
-Understand professional and ethical responsibilities
-Ability to communicate effectively
-Understand impact of engineering solutions in global and societal context
-Ability to engage in lifelong learning
-Knowledge of contemporary issues

-Ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering
-Ability to design and conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data
-Ability to design a system, component or process to meet desired needs
-Ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems
-Ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practices.

In addition, Criterion 4 Professional Component requires a general education component to complement the technical content that is consistent with both program and institutional objectives. Consequently, there is some validity to the claim that a modern engineering education reflects a liberal education.”

It will be interesting to hear the comments from our colleagues regarding such interpretation of engineering education.

[1] Edward Parrish, “Issues for Engineering Education,” Proceedings of China-US Bilateral Seminar on Engineering Education for a Global Economy, Oct. 20-24, 2002, Shanghai and Beijing, PRC, pp.197-201.
[2] Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the recognized accreditor for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Measurement In Mind

Adam CarleAdam Carle

Department of Psychology

Have we left our college students behind? Have we failed them? Hopefully not. Surely we meet their needs. And, perhaps, just perhaps, we surpass minimal contributions and provide deeply transformational and enriching experiences. But, how would we know? Colleges and Universities around the country have begun to feel the reverberations of the No Child Left Behind Act. Nationwide we’ve begun to feel a push to document that we actually make differences in the lives of our students, post-secondary students and otherwise. And, boy howdy (as we used to say on the farm), has this caused a stir.

As a scientist, particularly a social scientist, I find much of this discussion, controversy, and dissatisfaction strange. Why? Quite simply, I don’t understand why so many of us seem to resist the notion of defining and measuring educational outcomes. Why do we resist attempts to identify and define our goals in a measurable form? Don’t we want to know whether we’ve affected our students, positively or negatively?

Without operational definitions that make educational outcomes concrete and observable, we’ll never know if we’ve made a difference in the lives of our students. I believe that many of us want to transform our students’ lives and understandings. I fundamentally appreciate the inherent difficulty in operationally defining transformation. Trust me. I genuinely feel the struggle to develop reliable and valid measures of our constructs once we do identify and define them. Believe me. A large part of my research program uses quantitative methods to empirically investigate the reliability and validity of measures used in science. I’ve devoted my research career to this I feel it so deeply.

As a scientist, I want to articulate what I intend to measure, describe how I’ll measure it, and decide whether I’ve measured it. As a professor, I want to know empirically that I’ve positively affected my students. I want to know that the methods I’ve chosen to affect my students led to that change. I can’t do that unless I define what I intend to change and specify how I’ll measure it. Can you?

It seems to me that many of us argue about whether we should define outcomes or not, rather than arguing about the adequacy of our definitions. We argue about whether we should measure, rather than how well we’ve measured it. I wish we could use the newly forming atmosphere to engage in fruitful thinking and discussion about what we’d like to see our students achieve, understand, and master by the end of a class, the end of a semester, and the end of their college career. I wish we could use this time to talk to each other about the different things each of us value and how we might define and measure those values so that we can know whether we’ve achieved them as professors. To that end, what do you hope to accomplish in a class? What do you hope to change in your students? How do you know that you’ve realized your goals? What definitions and measures do you use? I’d love to read your responses; I’m sure your peers would too.