“Actions speak louder than words.”

I can’t tell you who said this phrase nor when it was said nor in what context. I’m sure Google would tell me if I asked, but I would rather talk about what I do know. I know these words to be absolute truth. Let me prove it.

Who are the most influential people in our world currently? Who impacts your life everyday even though you’ve never met them?

The five different Time 100 covers for 2013.

According to Time Magazine, the top 100 people of our time include leaders such as Barack Obama and Pope Francis, artists like Jennifer Lawrence and Steven Spielberg, icons including Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé, pioneers such as Don Yeomans and Perry Chen,  and titans like Sheryl Sandberg and Lebron James.

I guarantee you know almost all of the people I just listed. And if you don’t, now is the time to use Google because you’ll discover that these people are indeed affecting your life everyday, even though you didn’t know they existed.

Why do these people matter?

Beyoncé performing her song Single Ladies at the Super Bowl in February 2013.

These people along with everyone else on Time Magazine’s list and everyone you think are the most influential people in the world do things. For example, Beyoncé grew up in Houston, the daughter of a salesman and a hairdresser. At age seven, she sang at her school’s talent show and won, beating students twice her age. After this, she pursued music in every shape and form by attending music grade schools, competing in more talent shows and auditioning for singing roles. Today, Beyoncé is known for what she has accomplished as a result of these actions. Beyoncé is known for her songs, her acting in Dreamgirls,  her performance at the Super Bowl, etc. Beyoncé did not sit around at home thinking about how much she enjoyed music. She performed as often as she could and worked hard to become the best musician she could be. Now, she’s admired as one of the greatest icons of our time.

In my opinion, we sit around and think too much in school. Yes, thinking is a critical action and extremely important. But that does not change the fact that a thought only exists in your head and affects no one but yourself. Writings and discussions have more influence, but they are still a far cry away from doing anything. For every hour spent in lecture, an undergraduate is expected to spend three hours outside class working on knowing the material. The methods of doing this consist of staring at notes/PowerPoints/book pages, homework whether it be problems or essays, and other ways to internalize knowledge. There is typically no practical use or application outside of a two-dimensional piece of paper for a full time student until a student has an internship or job.

Within chemical engineering, the closest to hands-on applications a second year student comes is the optimization of a plant process. I don’t consider this to be a proper application of theory because it is a theoretical situation. Students are not able to actually run their design project at a plant so it is nothing more than a project. A plant set-up would be impossible, but there must be a way to bring these applications to student to gain more practical experience. This is why I’m an advocate of project-based learning, despite the difficulties it can impose. Project-based learning is doing.

French author Simone Weil’s book The Need for Roots.

I’m not going to criticize honors courses. I love my honors classes. I do have a suggestion to offer to honors courses though. These classes capitalize on higher thinking, but many do not use the idea of action enough in conjunction with thoughts and words. Some do, for instance when I volunteered to receive honors credit freshman year, but this is not the norm unfortunately. Last semester, I took a wonderful course titled French Intellectual Thinking. Yes, thinking was even in the title. We spent a lovely hour and half twice a week talking about French writers’ works all semester. What if we had taken their writings an actually lived them though? For example, we read parts of Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots where she listed the “needs of the soul” which included responsibility, truth, freedom of opinion, etc. Instead of discussing the importance of these, what if we students had made the effort to live a day without truth or without responsibility? At first it might be fun, but the end of the day, we would realize why it’s a need of the soul.

Barack Obama is known because he is the President of the United States, but he did not get there without campaigning and he wouldn’t be doing his job correctly if he wasn’t constantly acting as the president. He’s meeting world leaders, signing legislation, proposing his own solutions for problems in the US, etc. Ultimately, this translates well to undergraduate students. We wouldn’t be students without studying and homework. However, employers are increasingly looking at extracurricular involvement because these activities are opportunities where we, as students, can actually do something. Personally, I can’t imagine my life without student organizations. So, stop sitting around and thinking; start doing. That is what needs to be happening more and more in students’ lives, adults’ lives, everyone’s lives.

So, do you have an idea? A dream? A thought? Something you keep putting off until tomorrow for when it’s the right time?

Stop waiting. Share your idea, whether you talk about it or write about it. But don’t stop there. After sharing it, do not settle.

Start doing.



Personal note: I’m working on a follow-up to last week’s post, but it’s not ready yet. I sincerely apologize. I’ll also be on hiatus until June. For the next week, I’ll be in Scotland and Ireland and then I will be returning to the US for the first time since January. See you then! xx

Noyes lecture theater during class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In a lecture hall of hundreds, one person stands at the front of the room. This person talks. This person writes. This person presses the button of a clicker to switch to the next slide. This person conveys information he or she believes to be important in his or her method of choice. Behind this person, a multitude of people sit hunched over tiny desks. They scribble frantically and sigh when the slide has been changed to quickly. Their hands cramp. Their pens run out of ink. Some guy in the corner is drawing a unicorn instead of writing down Schrodinger’s equation. After class, most will leave for the next crowded lecture hall with too little foot room. Some people will remember what was taught. Many will not until homework or tests force them too. After the final exam, most people will forget the details the one person believed to be important because most people will only use what was actually relevant to them. A number of people will not remember what was learned and will never use the material.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Universities and colleges exist to educate their students. Universities actively involve three different types of people in the learning environment: faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students. If I compare the populations of these people at the University of Illinois, I discover that 70.1% of the education community at Illinois are undergraduate students. The schools with the smallest student-to-faculty ratio in the country are Bryn Athyn College of the New Church, Principia College, Virginia Intermont College and Williams College with an average student-to-faculty ratio of 7:1. This means that even at the schools with the lowest student-to-faculty ratios, 87.5% of the classroom consists of undergraduate students. On the other hand, the University of Central Florida boasts one of the highest student-to-faculty ratios in the US of 31:1, or 96.9% undergraduates. On average, undergraduates constitute 94.7% of the classroom nationally.

Interactions between undergraduates, graduate students, and professors summarize pictorially.

Interactions between undergraduates, graduate students, and professors in the US summarized pictorially.

Undergraduates, despite being the largest demographic in higher institutional learning, have the smallest influence within their education community. The curriculum is determined by faculty, deans and administrators in compliance with accreditation boards. Undergraduates are not part of the equation. Currently, everyone from business executives to industry to President Obama calls for improvement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education practices. To fix this, different groups including the U.S. News and World Report, the magazine known for its college rankings, host conferences to which they invite talent managers, policy makers, educators, non-profit organizations, etc. However, these meetings exclude the key demographic that make education a successful institution: students. There is no class room without students.

To improve education, administrators and deans, people in charge of the learning environment who are not actively involved, hold town halls to present PowerPoints for forty minutes and answer questions for twenty minutes from a large audience dominated by professors. In engineering, professors and graduate students, the other 29.9% of the university education community, strive to improve the education of undergraduate students. To implement a new project-based learning (PBL) course at Illinois, researchers interviewed students in the placebo and students in the new PBL class. The physics department offers private tutoring to specific students and compares these students with the rest of the class.

This is not enough.

As an undergraduate student, I listen to more feedback about a professor’s class from my friends than the professor teaching it will ever discover from the end-of-semester surveys. I know the classes people attend solely for attendance points, the classes students want to enjoy but are unable to because of the professor, the classes where amazing experiments blow students’ minds everyday, etc. I also hear about the course material students do and do not want to learn. Sure, bias can be found throughout these narratives, but what students really have to say should not be ignored. Instead of researching students, undergraduates should be invited to the table to take part in the discussions of their engineering education. Young adults will speak their minds openly and honestly when given the chance. Formal research studies give the feeling of a test with right answers. Town halls discourage students from speaking their mind openly in a large room of so many people. A conversation allows for students to feel comfortable in voicing their opinions.

Dinner with Europe Etudes in Strasbourg, France

Dinner with Europe Etudes in Strasbourg, France over spring break. Talking with undergraduate students should feel more like this, a dinner between friends and colleagues, than an interview.

Undergraduate engineers make up some of the best and brightest young minds in the world. Their thoughts and views will change engineering education for the better. Students do not need to be taught pedagogy or classical education practice to help advance their education. The power to make a difference will enable students to critically analyze their own education. College is more than a degree. It empowers student so that they can achieve their dreams. Students are not lazy underachievers who spend all their time on Facebook and Twitter. Students are simply overachievers waiting to be inspired by something bigger than them. If teachers educate effectively, students will want to learn and continue learning, even outside of the classroom. To accomplish this, class must be improved based on undergraduate student feedback. Good undergraduate feedback, not end of the semester survey.

With undergraduates making up 94.7% of the classroom, students should be actively recruited to participate in education discussions. Students are investing their lives when they pay for their college degree in money and time, precious commodities in our world. In education, undergraduates are learners, tutors, dreamers teachers, consumers, entrepreneurs, participants, the future, the past, and the present. Why aren’t students included in the conversation of the education in which they play an integral part? This needs to be changed as soon as possible.

How should engineering education be changed?

Go and ask undergraduate students this question. I don’t care about their age, major, GPA, industrial experience, or engineering education expertise. Engineering is their education. Engage engineering undergraduates in conversation. If given a voice, undergraduate engineers will help re-engineer the curriculum so that it spikes their interest and they learn more. If they learn more, they will be more successful engineers. Then engineering education will be something to be proud of.

Still looking for more? I’ll be posting a follow-up to this idea on how to involve undergraduates in their education within the next week, so be sure to subscribe. Thank you and happy learning!

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