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Philosophy

College instructors are designers; they are engineers of education.

The model of instructor-as-information-transmitter is widespread, but perhaps not the most effective idea for teaching. Many instructors do not believe that students are empty receptacles waiting to be filled with knowledge. These instructors are not speech-writers, they are not entertainers, and they are not self-important sages leading a flock of believers. These instructors are designers: designers of significant learning opportunities, designers of authentic, motivating, relevant problems and discussions, designers of effective methods for assessment and feedback.

Fortunately for me, my training is in chemical engineering, in which I have been tasked to design effective solutions to complicated problems. Designing effective courses and curricula is analogous to designing a chemical process, though if we view students as the raw feed and course content as unit operations, we are ignoring the important human element:  every student is a person with different experiences, motivations, experiences, and goals for the future. However, this doesn’t change the fact that my teaching philosophy is more of a design philosophy, and I will present my ideas in that way. I believe that effective course and curriculum design is absolutely essential to producing knowledgeable, responsible, and effective engineers.

A well-designed course breaks down into three major components, each equally important, and each absolutely interconnected to the others: (1) learning-related goals, (2) significant activities, and (3) meaningful feedback and assessment.

Learning goals may be readily established in some form, based on a previous course description, expected outcomes related to accreditation, or other aspirations of the institution or curriculum. Often, these established goals focus on knowledge and ability to apply this knowledge in the real world, but once again, this idea ignores the human element: students should also care about such knowledge and applications, understand how it affects his or her contributions to society, and know how to be a self-directed learner. One way I have used to get students to address these less tangible goals is to implement a portfolio system, in which students communicate their own backgrounds and goals and put engineering material in the context of their own experiences.

Activities related to teaching and learning may vary as a result of resources, such as time and space, as well as the composition of the students in attendance. These “activities” may range from two-minute small group discussions of a concept or problem all the way to a semester-long project tackling a complex issue. When designing a sequence of activities, I remind myself that what students learn is a direct result of what they think and what they do. Lecturing can be necessary to provide context or information, but students take more ownership over material when they are given opportunities both inside and outside class to work with it themselves. I try to design long-term projects such that they incorporate a variety of tools and skills, not all of which I necessarily cover in detail in a lecture. For example, for a computational methods course, I had students begin to optimize the release rate of a hypothetical drug into the bloodstream before explicitly explaining methods of optimization. This allowed students to consider their own prior knowledge and put it in context of the formal methods illustrated in the textbook. I similarly try to develop short activities again with learning, and therefore thinking and doing, in mind. These activities include leading new topics with brainstorming sessions, breaking out of lecture regularly to have students discuss an idea in small groups before bringing insights to the entire class, and designing homework and exam questions with explicitly direct and clear ties to learning goals.

Meaningful feedback and assessment naturally ties in with the other two concepts: without assessment, there is no way to determine whether the learning goals are achieved, and without feedback, a book could provide activities as easily as a professor. I believe it is important to have frequent feedback and clear points of assessment. If a set of learning activities is properly motivated, then some class activities and homework sets can focus entirely on feedback, giving students multiple opportunities to explore - and sometimes fail - without repercussions on their grade for the course. Examples of this idea include requesting periodic updates or drafts of long-term projects, or holding “minute quizzes” at the start or end of class to have students communicate their understanding in a way that does not affect grades. I have found that it may be necessary to incorporate “participation points” in these activities to acquire good contributions, but I keep this score based on perceived effort and of lesser weight in computing final grades. Items to be assessed can be revised versions of previous homework or projects, or exams designed with previous activities and learning goals explicitly in mind.

Finally, to instill a sense of caring and personal responsibility in my students, I do my best to communicate my own enthusiasm and investment in the course and its content. I provide my students several opportunities to provide feedback to me as well as themselves, through periodic brief questionnaires and specific homework assignments. I make explicit connections to real-world examples when they are not already obvious - and sometimes when they are! I realize that not all students will take a vested interest in the course, but I certainly do, and I will act in such a manner. I communicate my expectations as clearly as I can to minimize anxiety over course grades and to keep the focus on the purpose of my course: learning. I try to make clear to my students that I am not only interested in their development of skills, but their learning how to apply them, why they matter, how they affect them as an engineer, and how to grow further on their own.

Currently, given my own experiences in learning, teaching, and research, I feel most comfortable teaching topics in computational methods, process control, chemical kinetics, and introductory topics in engineering or chemical engineering, such as material and energy balances. I am willing and able to instruct any core course in chemical engineering. I am also prepared to teach concepts that bridge chemical and environmental engineering, such as population biology or ecology, should such electives be desired.

I feel that as I design more learning experiences for my students, I will simultaneously be providing myself with new opportunities to learn and explore the dimensions of course content, application, societal importance, and personal significance. I intend to stay current on the latest results of research in cognition and education to help form these learning experiences, and to incorporate these experiences into my own research in engineering education.

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