ASEE Prism Magazine - May/June 2003
The Graduate
Engineers, Start Your Engines
Magnetic Fields
All The President's Friends
ASEE 2003 Annual Conference - HItting a High Note in Nashville
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Last Word

OUR STUDENTS, OURSELVES

- 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 was contentious.

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 ogriffin@asee.org.

 

 
 
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