- By O. Hayden Griffin, Jr.
Becoming an engineer has never been easy, and it probably
never will be. But if, as professors, we remember the challenges we
faced as students, we could certainly make the experience, if not easier,
more rewarding. Maybe then we could repair engineering's leaky
pipeline and watch more of our bright first-year students grow to become
our colleagues, as engineering professors.
Engineering students experience a great deal of change
that first year, some of it difficult and painful, often resulting
in an "us" vs. "them" mentality very early
in the degree program. Students see teachers as wanting to weed them
out of engineering. Years ago, new engineering students were told, "Look
right, look left—only one of you will be here at graduation." I'm
not sure the attrition rate was ever that high, but the threatening
tone of comments like that certainly motivated us. Those remarks may
have been for our own good, but whether made as a challenge, a threat,
or a simple statement of fact, they also created a relationship that
Couple this "us" vs. "them" relationship
with the fact that students, in general, represent the only group of
consumers who truly want less than their money's worth from their
(tuition) dollar—they routinely skip class and do only the minimum
amount of studying needed to scrape by. Then, they are unhappy with
their resulting lackluster GPA. This reinforces the "us" vs. "them" mentality
for professors, who may interpret students' frustration with
the academic rigor as plain old laziness.
I know as an undergraduate student I never understood
why "they" made "us" do so much repetitious
work and write so many reports. Then I graduated and took a job at
a government laboratory, where I found my analytical and writing skills
were unacceptable—especially to myself. So I became a student
again, first with my boss as my teacher and then by returning to graduate
school. As I learned on the job, I wished that "they" had
made me work and write more while I was in college. By graduate school,
I was much wiser and realized the importance of getting as much as
I could for my tuition dollar.
As a professor, I've tried to break out of the
old, inherently flawed teaching routines and found that collaborative
learning and collegial interaction can make huge improvements in student-faculty
relationships. Like many other professors, I was initially uneasy with
collaborative learning. But having taken the plunge, I've found
it an excellent teaching method. Instead of a 50-minute lecture, I
now talk for 15 minutes and then assign a problem to be completed in
class. I wander the classroom while the students work, sometimes in
small groups, and I offer hints, tips, evaluation, and encouragement.
Having deserted the podium, I have become a teacher and a mentor, far
less intimidating and contentious roles than that of lecturer. The
students can see I am genuinely interested in their learning. They
respond by becoming better learners, breaking down the barriers between
faculty and students in the process.
Even though things have improved, the relationship between
engineering faculty and students remains very complicated. Part of
it has to do with the shifting roles of our students, who are simultaneously
our "customer" and our "product". As they reach
their senior year and attend graduate school, they take on the additional
role of colleagues and sometimes friends—hopefully, relationships
that remain when they leave the university. They may also become customers
again when they begin hiring our current students and recent graduates.
As student customers, they have a right to expect quality instruction,
meaningful laboratory experiences, equitable treatment, good advice,
and a host of other benefits. As products the college supplies to employers,
who are also our customers, students should desire and demand to be
one of the best products in the marketplace. Likewise, we should strive
to make them into the best products on the market, without losing them
to less rigorous fields along the way.
O. Hayden Griffin, Jr. is a professor and director
in the division of engineering fundamentals at Virginia Polytechnic
Institute and State University.
He can be reached at email@example.com.