Students at Alamo Colleges in San Antonio will have to take an academic success course based in part on the popular self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, MySanAntonio.com reported. The course, backed by Chancellor Bruce Leslie, had been controversial among faculty because it will replace one of just two humanities courses in the core curriculum. Faculty at Northwest Vista College were particularly vocal in their opposition, writing a letter to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board asking it not to approve the course as part of the core. But the board approved the course this week. Viviane Marioneaux, president of the Faculty Senate at Northwest Vista, said the course had not gone through the typical faculty vetting process and compared what she said was a "course-centered," versus student-centered approach to the core, to "riding a horse backward." Leslie has said that students come to college underprepared and need explicit instruction on how to "do" college and prepare for the working world.
Instead of trying to counter the survey data that led Professor Cech to conclude engineering education makes students cynical, I would instead like to highlight some of the motivations and actions of engineers and engineering students and then consider whether these indicate a desire to improve the human condition.
Lafayette College hosts a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) summer camp for elementary school students. At the camp last summer, I was asked by a camper to explain what engineers do. Engineering covers such as vast array of applications and technologies that summarizing the whole of engineering to a group of 10-year-olds in a sentence or two was a challenge. I’ve heard it said that engineers are “problem solvers” but that description seems a bit vacuous. Medical doctors are problem solvers, but they’re not engineers. The description of an engineer as a “problem solver” is, at the very least, incomplete. I needed to think of something better for the camper, but I’ll get back to that later.
Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the motivation for engineering problem solving. Why do engineers develop things like smartphones, medical devices, and (my favorite on this frigid winter day) central heating? The cynical answer here would be the money. Engineers do have relatively high compensation rates compared to many liberal arts degree recipients and they have excellent job prospects. However, it is not money that motivates students to become engineers. The high salary may initially attract students to the programs, in a similar way that high salaries attract people to become medical doctors, but the hope of future earnings does not drag students into a lab at 2 a.m. to complete an analysis. Passion does.
Data support the premise that engineering students want to have a positive impact and improve the human condition. Over the past decade, enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs across the United States has increased by nearly 25 percent. Over this same period, environmental engineering enrollment has grown nationally by over 75 percent and biomedical engineering has grown by an astonishing 170 percent. The very nature of these degree programs is to help people and the environment. This provides direct evidence that engineering students are deeply committed to using their talents to improve people’s lives. More traditional engineering disciplines have also grown in numbers partly due to employment prospects, but also because prospective students see engineering as a way to simultaneously have a financially rewarding career while bettering the world.
Students who pursue engineering careers want to combine their math and science skills with their creative abilities in what is called engineering design. Although the engineering design process is taught at every engineering school, there is no single agreed upon “best” design process. Just like different companies have different design principles and practices, faculty and engineering programs have different variations of the design process as well. That said, engineering design always starts off with the same first step; recognizing a need. Engineers, at their core, are trying to make things more efficient, easier to use, and more effective.
One of the most progressive engineering design processes, made popular by Stanford University’s Design Institute, is called Design Thinking. An early step in Design Thinking is to empathize with the client. Whether an engineer is developing a prosthetic leg to enable an amputee to walk, a process to produce a drug to lower cholesterol, or a bridge to better connect people’s lives, engineers are empathizing with the condition of those impacted by their design.
One can gain insight into the values embraced by the field of engineering by looking at its professional organizations. In addition to the traditional ones founded to improve safety and reliability of engineered systems, organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, Engineering World Health, and the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges were formed in the last 25 years to make a positive impact on the human condition. Recently a new type of organization was created called Engineering for Change. This community brings together the combined talents of engineers, social scientists, NGOs, local governments, and community advocates to improve the quality of life in communities around the world by promoting the development of affordable and sustainable solutions to the most pressing humanitarian challenges. These types of service organizations are thriving at engineering schools across the country with broad participation from students who are doing impactful work to help people live happier and healthier lives.
Engineers are optimists who believe that they can design and create solutions to help solve the problems facing society. This brings me back to the response I gave the camper who wanted to know what engineers do. “Engineers make people’s lives better through the use of technology,” I told her.
There is nothing cynical about that.
Scott R. Hummel is the William Jeffers Director of the Engineering Division at Lafayette College.
Although these sound bites slight the seriousness of their subject, Cuomo’s critics raise a fundamentally important question: When low- and middle-income students are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of debt, how can government support for college prison programs be justified?
And the issue matters not only in New York State, where Cuomo’s proposal has captured public attention, but nationwide, where the idea of promoting college education in prisons is mostly ignored by politicians fearful of the kinds of attacks Cuomo is receiving.
We agree that any argument for funding college courses and/or degrees for prison inmates must reckon with the reality of the financial pressure on students who incur onerous college loans only to face an uncertain job market. In New York State, 6 out of 10 college seniors graduate with debt averaging $25,537, a reality not lost on some of our students in the Cayuga Community College-Cornell University Prison Education Program. Many men in our program have sons, daughters, nieces and nephews on the outside who are struggling to pay their own college loans.
That said, approaching college programs for prison inmates as a matter of “them or us,” the middle class or the undeserving poor, distorts what is at stake. This happened before. In the mid-1990s, Congress eliminated the use of federal Pell Grants for college programs in prison in response to critics who claimed that they drew resources away from worthy young men and women who were struggling to pay their way through college.
That was misguided then, and it remains so now.
First of all, the cost is relatively small. Governor Cuomo has proposed 10 programs, each with about 100 students, at a cost of $5,000 per individual that totals about $5 million. Compare this to the financial support available to New York college students more generally. In 2013, close to $2 billion in federal Pell Grants were disbursed to about 97,000 students in New York State, a figure that does not include a vast array of other federal and state as well as private scholarship and loan money available generally to students in New York’s two- and four-year colleges.
Second, the us-vs.-them frame is blind to the crime reduction and tax benefits that even a small college-educated prison population can deliver. College programs lower the incidence of crime both inside the prison and beyond its walls. Facility superintendents are usually eager to have college programs. A good discipline record is required to join and remain in the program. In those facilities with college classes, the incentive for staying out of trouble rises sharply.
When college-educated individuals are released to the street, recidivism drops dramatically. The Bard and Hudson Link prison education programs record low single digit return-to-prison rates of their students and graduates. A careful, synthetic analysis of multiple studies done in Ohio reports college as contributing to a one-third decline in reincarceration.
Even under conservative assumptions, the program will pay for itself and more. Assuming a $5 million cost, the release of no more than one-tenth of the 100 students in each of the 10 graduating classes, and recidivism rates of not more than 25 percent (much above the single-digit recidivism rate that New York State’s college programs currently experience), the savings during the first year are close to $5 million. Compounded over many years, they are substantial.
Third, it would be a mistake to see the benefits only in quantifiable monetary terms. Many student recipients of a college education behind bars play a role in urging young members of their own families to stay in school, to work hard, and to consider college. On returning home, many of these former students become passionate mentors of younger adults who face the same choices they once did. And the “us-them” divide is blurred still further in that many prison students become us returning to OUR families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our communities.
We ask that voters and our elected representatives act on the proposition that all New Yorkers – and all Americans – are better off by ridding ourselves of the legacy of binaries that force us to choose between the morally pure and the undeserving poor and by implementing public policies that reflect a commitment to provide education free of any racial, class, or moral litmus test.
Glenn Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Why do they come? Thirty-seven smiling young faces in a classroom look up at me, oozing confidence that I will teach them successfully and help them pass the course. I confide in them: the course should really have 24 students for an optimum presentation. Nobody moves. And the smiles stay fixed.
I tell them that everything I teach is available online, and the jokes there are probably funnier than the ones I use. They sit still. As they do in the classes of almost two million other faculty members.
They will continue to come, the 14 or 15 million students who can’t or won’t learn by themselves. Yes, there are two million or so students who can master difficult material on their own, and there are mature individuals whose life circumstances makes it necessary to learn essentials, to pass a course, and to move on.
But for the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
And so they come….
Now picture a full colored photo on glossy paper of college students, gathered happily at graduation. Idyllic, but misleading. Look closely, very closely at the picture and find that the picture isn’t a picture at all, but an assemblage of thousands of individual dots. Separate, and often strikingly different from each other. Now take away the color and a further grim graininess appears.
That’s the real-world picture a faculty member sees in the classes s/he teaches. A group of individuals, each with different life experience, family circumstance, personal growth pattern, goals, and course selections.
Pretty pictures are for people who look at higher education from the far periphery; it is they who dare make general statements, universal predictions and global pronouncements about what will take place in college. I know better. I know that every one of the 2200 or so minutes I will be with this particular group of individuals will present its own challenges, its own opportunities for teaching and learning, and its own possibilities for failure.
I am alert to the pressures and influences that divert so many young people, and am no longer surprised at the number of hours many of them spend online. Nor do I express disappointment at the number of students who expect to be taught, who expect to know – but who will not do the work involved in learning. They are, after all, the children who learned the alphabet painlessly on Sesame Street, and grew up one click away from the world’s store of knowledge.
For the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
My students need hand-holding, human-hand-holding, to become engaged, and focus on the depth of material rather than on obtaining a quick, superficial answer. They live in a digital world, but remain analog beings and must learn to acquire and assimilate great bodies of knowledge, comprehensive, continuous, and coherent.
Fortunately, they don’t face this task alone. Together with their 30-odd peers, they begin to form a class. Even though this class will not reach the level of a community of scholars, the collective plays its role. Students begin to share notes, discuss homework, assist each other in understanding difficult material, and interact during class. There is argument, shared humor and collective disappointment; a sudden scurry when an exam is announced, a flurry of conversation just before the exam takes place, and consultation right after it ends. Every one of these interactions enhances student engagement.
There is something about the structure of the classroom that contributes to the learning process, perhaps akin to a group of musicians whose joint effort is so much more effective than it would be were they to play their instrument at a separate location with an expert mixing the sounds. People do interact and college students better than most.
Fortunately, too, there is the faculty member who knows that teaching is more than presenting information and that learning is a very complex process, difficult and unusual for most people. A whole range of strategies is needed to keep students striving and stretching for a whole period, let alone a whole term. Students must be induced, sometimes with humor, to concentrate. There must be challenge, repetition, surprise and praise.
A successful teacher can offer spontaneity, immediacy, and instant, interactive feedback. He/she knows that a question is not just a request for information. A question can signal to the teacher that something is wrong with the presentation. Often, it can enable a teacher to involve all the others in the class, becoming part of a different, sometimes unanticipated learning experience.
Teachers learn to walk the aisles, to watch faces, to orchestrate discussion and stimulate questions. Eye contact and a smile – or lack of it – can guide the next part of the discussion, and one student’s difficulties can be used to address those who can’t even formulate their lack of understanding.
Some teachers know how to seize on a recent event and weave it into the discussion, or look at a student’s notebook to determine whether the student was following properly or not.
Depending on the course and the class, a faculty member will help students overcome anxiety, shyness and diffidence. College teachers will use connection and analogies to get a point across. And alert students will follow as a scholar approaches a new problem or situation to understand how an expert thinks.
Listening, correcting, suggesting, modeling, prodding, affirming, critiquing, reflecting, admitting, weighing, arguing, and guiding are but some of the other strategies faculty will use to move students along on a trajectory of learning.
For many there is nothing as effective as face-to-face teaching, and the five-minute explanation at the chalkboard after class has rescued many a student.
There is so much more. Experienced instructors know how to address the blank stare, and are able to evoke expression from students who seat themselves at the back of the room. Reinforcement, encouragement, constructive argumentation all help develop patterns of thinking and behavior which will long outlast the specific topic being taught.
A traditional college education usually comprises 40 or so separate courses offered by as many different faculty members, each of whom will bring to bear those qualities and strategies appropriate to the subject, reflecting his/her character and talents. Students will be brought into discussions where they will venture opinions – and defend them without anger. Most will learn to evaluate disagreeable perspectives and remain friends with both proponents and opponents.
They will learn how to change their minds, to deal with mistakes, and to respect the rights of others.
Faculty members know how to jostle students into active learning. As often as not they are enthusiastic advocates as well as practitioners of the subject at hand, and students will experience the passion as well as the process of a presentation.
Learning from a scholar enables a student to acquire knowledge in an organized framework from someone who has assimilated so much, and knows how to provide a roadmap that is uniquely effective for each particular group.
A scholar knows how to form connections with other courses and plant ideas and insights that will bear fruit in a subsequent course, or later in life. Students must be taught how to approach the unknown, the impossible, the unanticipated and the future. It is the competent, confident scholar/faculty member who will see the need for this kind of learning and have the ability to present it.
Only after the usual 1,800 hours (over 100,000 minutes in the classroom) and the hoped-for 3,600 hours of after class assignments have been completed is it possible to compose the glossy, colored picture. Only then do the thousands of interactions, lessons, topics, and learnings combine to make the graduate and the graduating class.
Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and a former accreditor.