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!

2 Comments

  1. Drake Fitzsimmons

    Morgan, I’m not sure if you have kept up to date, but Claire G. and other AIChE members have been working hard on implementing an undergraduate advisory board for the CHBE department. It is a little sad that it hasn’t been in the works for longer or it has to be us pushing it rather than faculty reaching out to us. I always wonder how the feel would be different at schools that weren’t so heavily fixated on research. I think it is easy to blame faculty and say they don’t care enough about their undergrad classes but I think the intention to teach well and relevantly is there, the faculty just seem spread too thin with research. And it is hard because the school has to make money too.

  2. Hi Morgan – I hope we have a chance to talk further this evening but I’m traveling by air today and who knows what’s going to happen. I definitely agree that undergraduates should be more involved in how classes (or more generally, learning) is structured. I try to have that conversation at the beginning of each class I teach: here’s what I think is important for you to walk away with; I think there should be a hands-on component to this material; I think that should be student-directed and organized; how do you want to be graded? I get some lively discussion on that sometimes, but mostly I guess students are so unused to this approach they don’t have their thoughts organized. So, I’ll let this conversation continue into the next class meeting. Yah, I get some suggestions and eventually we reach consensus on the structure of the class. Often, later in the semester, some students want to change that. It’s hard to know how to deal with that.

    I do know from experience that as you say, when students feel they have some influence in how material is covered they are better motivated to own it. That’s good. I encourage you to continue trying to make those contributions. I’m trying to listen. I have a question for you. Well, some questions. Is there a general level of intellectual maturity I can expect from students? Can I throw out general questions and expect students to take advantage of the available resources (library, internet, ad hoc groups) to learn the material needed as prerequisites? Finally, when there are prerequisites published for the course and students have the needed prereqs but don’t seem to have command of the material (any more) what should I do then? Drop back and review the prereq material?

    Oh, yeah, so I can’t resist one of my favorite rants. In all of my career I think I’ve worked on one project alone. So, wherever it is that you’re going it’s likely to be a cooperative venture. There is no venture more cooperative than education. And no cooperative venture works without trust and respect. We have to build that together.

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