Sebastian Dziallas

wrangler of learning tools

Craft of Electronics Design Bounty: We Need a Logo!

This summer, I’m working on a project dubbed Craft of Electronics. I just wrote a post on our blog and thought I’d highlight it here as well. Read on below for more, and if you’re interested just drop us a line in the comments.

The Craft of Electronics is a project to develop an introductory electronics curriculum at Berea College in Kentucky. But it’s also about “creating a world where it’s possible for students to learn college-level electronics in a craft-first (and theory-sometime-later) format, through learning from, participating in, and contributing to the open hardware movement.” In fact, we’ve been blogging, brainstorming, and writing on craftofelectronics.org where all of the content is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license. For more background, this post captures a lot of what we’re trying to do.

Well, you may say, why the shout-out now? If you’ve been following us on Twitter, you’ll notice that our current logo isn’t even very deserving of that name. So.

Help us out with a new logo! We promise we won’t be picky, but it needs to meet a few of specifications:

  • it needs to come as a vector graphic
  • it needs to perform well as a Twitter/identi.ca icon, as well as on t-shirts or when engraved in wood; this is obviously a somewhat subjective statement, but we’d love to talk to you.
  • it needs to be licensed at least under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license (more permissive licenses are of course also acceptable & welcome)

And here’s what’s in for you: we said “engraved in wood” above. That’s right, at Berea, we have access to a machine shop including a laser cutter & a CNC router. So if we chose your design, you’ll receive:

  • the gratitude of the entire team (@jadudm, @mchua, @sdziallas)
  • a t-shirt with the logo on it – we’ll be making these for us and get you one as well
  • a wooden plate with the logo engraved for you to put on your desk (or your mug on, if you’re so inclined)

If you’re up for the challenge, you can email us on the mailing list.

A Retrospective on the First Part of Summer…

Lot’s of things have been happening this summer and I finally got around to writing most of them up. I started my summer back home in Germany and was going to make my way back to the US at the beginning of June to help out with Olin’s I2E2 summer institute.

A Story of Flight Delays

But that would take longer than expected: I was scheduled to fly from my home airport with a connection in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, the plane on the way there had trouble with the fuel gauges, and having those in working condition would be really nice when it comes to flying a plane. To make a long story short, we got rebooked and everyone was really good about it, in particular the people at CDG who put me on the upper deck of the 747. And so I made it to Boston, where I was met by Brett at the airport, not long after failing the Olin challange once again.

I2E2 Summer Institute at Olin

I2E2 is Olin’s Initiative for Innovation in Engineering Education. Over the past two semesters or so, I’ve been working with a couple of other students to host visitors to the campus during the semester. Oftentimes, those visits involve a tour of the campus and conversations to provide a student perspective on the college. I2E2 has also been running a weeklong summer institute to introduce faculty from other institutions to techniques that would be useful for designing curricula with the student in mind given the constraints of their context. For this year’s summer institute, Brett and I were able to be around for the week to help arrange logistics, provide a student voice during the workshop, and spend time working with the faculty.

More Than Just Courses

As we tried to figure things out over the course of the week, we learned a lot from everyone involved, in particular our own faculty. Part of it was also that we saw something we had seen before reinforced: there’s more to the courses (and their respective learning objectives) at Olin than just cramming material and attempting to retain it. After all, why would we be putting professors from other institutions through parts of our introductory experience if it was just about content?

One of the most fascinating things was to see the introduction of concepts from user-oriented collaborative design to the curriculum design: attendees were exposed to an introductory modeling & simulation experience and then asked to redesign that experience based on the values and needs of the students and faculty at their institution: they were designing for their own context.

80s Rockin’ Fun

Another pleasent surprise was the soundtrack of the week: our professors had been looking to provide some background music during the activities, and our very own Rob Martello had quickly repurposed our 70s & 80s playlists. As a reminder, I took the Stuff of History, an integrated course that covered both historic and material science topics. Over the course of the semester, we created multiple Grooveshark playlists and implemented a feature that would automatically post the most recent songs every half an hour to Twitter. Follow @StuffofHistory on Twitter and message me with any suggestions for songs to add!

Documenting Olin

After the I2E2 summer institute, I spent a few days talking with Mark Somerville about the Documenting Olin course in the fall. I was part of an independent study this past semester with a couple of other students that was looking to identify key elements of the college. Expect me to write more about this in the near future.

Craft of Electronics

As you may have noted from my Twitter stream, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks working in Kentucky at Berea College designing a new introductory electronics curriculum together with Matt Jadud and Mel Chua. I won’t go into too much detail here, as you can explore most of the project on craftofelectronics.org, but there are two things in particular that I’m excited about.

The first is a visual programming environment that Matt blogged about here. We also have a brief video explaining how it works here. I’m actually quite excited about how this is coming together: clearly, it’s not yet ready for production, but it’s a working prototype that demonstrates what we can do with a visual environment and parallel programming. In short, it’s using a library called WireIt that is based off the same toolkit as Yahoo Pipes. In our case, that code is running off a node.js server which returns a representation of the diagram upon clicking the run button. It then triggers, and that is probably the most interesting part in my opinion, a piece of code written in Scheme (yes, that language that we used in Foundations of Computer Science) to convert that output to occam-pi. Matt has worked with it before and the Transterpreter project actually lets us to parallel program for the Arduino. So in short, this allows us to convert the blocks and wires from the visual interface to code that runs flawlessly on the Arduino.

The second part concerns our learning objectives: we’ve previously identified three major components of what we call the craft of electronics – safety, design, and fabrication. Recently, we focused on the design aspect and brainstormed possible activities, partially inspired by the process I experienced in User-Oriented Collaborative Design. Over the course of the conversation, we noted that walking students through an entire design process with full-blown user interactions might be too much for a 14-week electronics course. However, we came up with a modified version which captured the major aspects: people and their respective needs, as well as prototypes. The design process could then be described as an iteration between the creation of such a prototype and the testing of the prototype against the user’s actual needs with appropriate adjustments being made over time. Once an acceptable state has been reached, the project can move into a more permanent state with its first release.

Red Hat Summit

Then, last week, I made it out to Boston for the Red Hat Summit thanks to the nice folks at opensource.com. I was part of a panel at the summit last year and gave a brief ignite talk on the intersection of open source and education this time around. The talks were being recorded and should be posted on opensource.com soon. Since I wasn’t able to make it to the last FUDCon, it was also really nice to get to see all the people from the Fedora community and friends in Boston again. Rock on!

What’s Next?

Well, I’m going to be in Kentucky for another four weeks. There’ll be a brief interlude in Raleigh at the end of July after which I’ll head back home for two weeks. And then the summer will be almost over already and I’ll be making my way back to Olin – it seems so close and yet so far away. But isn’t that oftentimes the case?

May I Suggest: A Day in Nashville

Following the tradition of previous columns in a similar vein, this post explores Nashville over the course of a day.

Go eat. Nashville may be Music City, but it also comes with some excellent bistros. Assuming that it’s Sunday, kick off your day at Marché Artisan Foods, a small french café on the east side of town. Treat yourself to some peaches & ricotta on toasted bread with honey and give the homemade granola a try as well. A café au lait will put you in the right mood, as will an actual Orangina (with pulp!).

Opt for a walk if you’re so inclined and check out one of Nashville’s many water fountains downtown. If you’re still looking for dessert, make your way west and you’ll find Las Paletas, a gourmet popsicle place in an interesting neighborhood. Flavor recommendations are moot, since any of them will do just fine.

Soy Teriyaki Bistro is located just outside the city in Brentwood, easily accessible from the highway, and will outdo just about any fast-food chain. Pick one of the teriyaki combinations and enjoy the rest evening.

Looking Back on the First Half of a Semester; and Forward to the Summer.

Two of my good friends at Olin (hi there) have recently blogged about how things are going for them this semester. Spring break appears to be a good time to reflect. So how are things actually going?

It’s been busy, although that probably comes as no surprise. This semester came with a whole load of opportunities to pick from. And make no mistake, working through the opportunity cost of each of these can be hard; especially when you still end up walking into your room at 4am in the morning. You may ask why is this worth it?

Well, let me tell you a story. One of the projects I’m working on this semester focuses on documenting the efforts around innovation in engineering education at Olin. As part of it, Tony Wagner ran a focus group with us – on us. When each of us was asked to identify what we valued most about Olin, we all responded in different ways. But what it came down to were the people. I have not seen any other place with so many passionate, humble and hard-working people who care about each other.

Just a week ago, I got to see another example of that. At a time that some may consider the middle of the night (to be precise, it was 1:36am) one of the first year students decided that pi day was an occasion worth baking cookies for everyone. The subsequent email one of my friends sent said: Come hang out, eat cookies, and be awesome. :)

If there’s one thing I learned my first semester, it was that even in the midst of all work related firehoses, it was worth making time for the important things. To be happy.

Over the past two semesters, I’ve spent more time thinking about innovation in education. The aforementioned work with Mark Somerville and Tony Wagner certainly helped with that. At Olin, we tend to say that people don’t get Olin until they come here. But what does that even mean? What is it that we are doing that people don’t get? How can we communicate better what we are doing so that it has a meaningful impact?

Attributes like intrinsic motivation (talk to an Olin student, you’ll be surprised!), risk taking, collaboration, interdisciplinary work and creativity jump to mind. One of the things prospective students see during their Candidates’ Weekend experience is an environment that reinforces all these values. However, certainly not all of our methods are compatible with other institutions.

I’ve been working with the Initiative for Innovation in Engineering Education (I2E2), Olin’s outreach effort for said attributes and methods. As Brett points out in his blog post, the responses from our visitors have been astounding: one of them noted that he was a professor of education and that students at Olin were able to communicate with him on one level, that they spoke the same language. I find that quite remarkable. And I would like to learn more how we can affect a system as complex as the one of education – by helping other institutions to introduce these values in their classrooms.

While the amount of travel I do has declined for me this semester, one of my more recent trips brought me back to Raleigh, NC where the annual conference for the Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education took place. Having worked with the Teaching Open Source community (which aims to introduce similar values as the ones listed above by permitting students to participate in real world open source projects as part of their classroom experience) for quite a while now, I mostly knew what to expect.

And yet I was completely blown away by my conference experience. I did not attend a single session I wasn’t involved in. Instead, I spent most of my time catching up with community members, seeing familiar faces and facilitating activities. It was great.

Of course, it helped that I had been to Raleigh before. The triangle area in North Carolina is one of my favorite spots. Having visited multiple times when I was still working for Red Hat, I like coming to places that I’ve been before, that let me feel like I’m no stranger. Shout out to The Borough, Rue Cler, Gravy and Sitti here.

So what’s keeping me busy these days? Well, there’s obviously some work that I managed to push off until spring break that I need to take care of, but it’s mostly the question of what I’ll be doing over the summer. This one turns out to be a tough one.

I’ve been getting more and more involved in thinking about innovations in education, and I’m still curious to see potential technological solutions to specific problems. As I wrote for opensource.com, I believe that education is fundamentally a human issue. It’s not a technology problem. But there may be ways we can use technology to advance particular pieces of education. One of the things I’m particularly interested in is using open source practices in education.

So if you’re looking for somebody to join you for a summer to make a change, drop me a line (firstname [at] domainname [dot] com). I’m not terribly location bound, love travel and am available approximately from the end of May til the middle of August. You can see my CV here.

A Short Review of the Artist.

The Artist

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching The Artist together with a couple of friends. We went to the West Newton Cinema which is an atmosphere of its own, not resembling any of the modern movie theaters in the area. It mainly screens foreign and independent titles which I find particularly interesting.

I had read earlier both in the Guardian and Roger Ebert’s review that people had walked out of the movie since they didn’t realize it was a silent movie. Well, at least that wasn’t going to happen to me.

That being said, I was surprised, both in a good and a bad way. The Artist – which tells the story of the soon-to-be former silent movie star George Valentin and rising icon Peppy Miller – is a beautifully crafted piece of movie that will let you smile in subtle ways. After meeting by accident, their respective paths diverge, only to be reunited in the events leading up to the grand finale.

In many ways, it is indeed a grand finale for the movie, resolving open threads to satisfaction. But in retrospect, that is one thing that bothered me: not once during the movie it would have occurred to me to walk out on it. It was not a difficult movie by any means. It almost felt popular.

And that’s alright. I wonder why it is, but I also have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching The Artist. After all, you don’t run into a silent black and white movie every day.

Off to LA Tomorrow: SCALE 10x Conference

I’ll be heading to SCALE early tomorrow morning. I had previously been accepted as a speaker last year but couldn’t make it due to travel constraints. So I’m even more looking forward to attending the conference. In fact, I’ll be talking Saturday afternoon about the experiences we’ve been having with our POSSE workshop that introduces faculty to open source projects (Saturday, 4:30pm, Bel Air room, details here).

Similarly, I will be giving a short but intense introduction to the workshop itself on Sunday. If you’ve been trying to get involved in an open source project of your choice but haven’t found the right path yet, we’ll be there to help. In particular, we’ll try to bridge cultural norms that can differ from project to project. If you’re interested, swing by (Sunday, 11:30am, Bel Air room, details here).

I’m also very much looking forward to SCALE on a personal level. A lot of my friends and former colleagues are apparently going, so it’s going to be good to catch up. That being said, the schedule also looks fabulous and I’ll try to make it to some sessions (watch out for #scale10x on Twitter). See you there!

More SOPA News: Check Out the Blackout Gallery!

Earlier, word spread quickly that Wikipedia was going to go dark today (January 18), leaving millions of students without access to their favorite research resource. Soon thereafter, rumours surfaced describing ways to “circumvent” the blackout which a variety of websites simulate as part of the ongoing protest against the SOPA and PIPA bills. At opensource.com, Ruth Suehle has been actively capturing website that express their opposition to said bills. So head over there, check out the currently (at the time of writing) 66 screenshots and let us know if there are any other sites you came across: http://opensource.com/life/12/1/january-18-captured-sopa-blackout-gallery

Three Movies in 48 Hours: Senna, the Company Men and Beginners

I’ve recently had the pleasure of watching Senna, The Company Men and Beginners, in less than 48 hours. All of them are good movies, but two of them were particularly well done. Here’s why.

Senna

I started out with Senna the night before my flight back home. It’s a documentary that portrays, well, Ayrton Senna. The movie maps archive video material from his races and family tapes with audio commentary from his friends, competitors, colleagues and relatives. In the beginning, I was a little sceptica, as I felt the movie was starting a little slow: it introduced Senna as a driver, referred back to his go-karting experience and his Brazilian origin. However, that feeling went away soon enough. Looking back, I’d argue that it’s the focus on Senna, the person as a whole, that made the movie appear so very appealing to me. After all, his passion was racing. I didn’t find any obvious unnecessary speculations or overstatements in it – the movie simply told his story. But it did so in a way, that permitted the audience to become emotionally closer to the happenings on the screen. Certainly, there no surprises. The story had been told many times before. But for somebody, like myself, who had been interested in Formula One racing at younger ages (in the times of Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen) but never followed up beyond watching a race every now and then, it was intriguing. The movie provided interesting background knowledge that I was previously unaware of; yet, it also introduced the people I had come across and heard about. Roger Ebert reviewed the movie, giving it a mixed rating. He writes: “Senna is a documentary that does the job it sets out to do. I wish it had tried for more.” Yes, maybe it only achieves what it set out to do; but there’s only so much to say. The rest is history. And it tells it in the most powerful way I’ve seen over the past year.

The Company Men

When considered going to the movies over the summer, I was looking at The Company Men. To be very clear: I’m glad I didn’t. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just not a great one. Maybe it was the fact that I watched it in an airport terminal when my Swiss Air Lines flight had been delayed, but I simply wasn’t impressed. There’ve been a couple of movies on the recent recession and its impacts on society (very much in a way Brothers tackles the Iraq War), but The Company Men is certainly the one that convers the topic right head on. Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones all work for the fictional company GTX, when the risk of a takeover leads to closure of multiple business lines that affect all three of them. In short, they are layed off one after another. When I watched the trailer, I felt that it wasn’t clear that all three of them worked for the same company. I went into the movie expecting a set of episodes of people dealing with suddenly becoming unemployed. And to some extent, that’s what the movie does. Yet, it spends too much time on it. Bobby Walker, played by Affleck, is the first to go. And boy, it takes him a long time to accept his new situation. In one of the stronger parts of the movie, he tells his son that he can’t drive him. His son leaves obviously disappointed; and so Bobby follows him, encouraging to play Xbox instead. That’s when his wife, played by a very strong Rosemarie DeWitt who returns from another major performance in Rachel Getting Married, tells him that his son had returned the Xbox. He didn’t feel like they could afford it anymore. And so the movie keeps on going. There are surprisingly few surprises. And the few of them that are, didn’t leave me feeling that I cared. The people themselves are somewhat likable, but it’s probably that directory Wells didn’t spend a whole lot of time introducing me to them; that is, except for letting me watch them deal with their situation. For example, I wish that he took more time to effectively show the conflict between Tommy Lee Jones and his boss, Craig T. Nelson. There’s another strong scene in there, when the HR department is going through a list of people to lay off and Gene, represented by Jones, points out that apparently he had falsely assumed that the company was shooting for higher standards than just the question “is it legal?”. Again, it’s a good movie. And I have to commend it for dealing with a complicated topic. But in this case, I think Roger Ebert’s comment on Senna fits much rather: “I wish it had tried for more.”

Beginners

Finally, I had the opportunity of watching Beginners on my flight to Zurich. Since it was a red-eye, I was originally planning on sleeping, but I had wanted to watch Beginners for a while, and so I went for it. Beginners tells the story of Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, who is reflecting on his relationship with his parents (in particular, his dad, who is brilliantly delivered by Christopher Plummer), as well as his girlfriends and his dog. Simply put, it’s a film that makes its points so very subtly, making it magnificient. On multiple occasions, I didn’t start laughing out loudly. I smiled silently. And it didn’t even take much: the simple use of a piece of piano music got me to smile. Think 500 Days of Summer, yet much less hectic, almost in a Woody Allen style. Then again, like aforementioned movie, Beginners isn’t a love story. It’s so much more. I was amazed by its simplicity. I suggest you check it out.

POSSE Visits. Part 3: New Hampshire.

Yesterday, I went to visit Michael Jonas and Mihaela Sabin, both POSSE alumni, at UNH in Manchester. They are working on getting a seminar series with speakers from a variety of backgrounds going and so I was the first one talking on getting involved in open source communities (see publications).

I find it fascinating to see the differences, both in the student body and the culture at the different schools I’ve been visiting. UNH was clearly on the smaller side of schools, but it had a very interesting feel to it.

Joanie Diggs was also at the event – Michael had introduced us when I previously went out for a lunch conversation. After my talk, both of us were given the tour of the school and ended up talking more about different ways of immersing students in open source projects as part of their classroom experience in Michael’s office. Watch the TOS list for more!

Thoughts on Education: Learning Styles & Student Experiences.

So this is it. AHSE 2199 assignment number 8. Why my blog post starts with such cryptical numbers? Well, this is a special assignment in the way that I get to choose (to some extent) the deliverable for my Teaching & Learning class. But let’s start at the beginning: this semester, I’m taking a class that focuses on undergraduate STEM education as part of my arts, humanities and social studies requirement at Olin. And for this class, I’ll even have to create a teaching portfolio as our final deliverable! Aside from that, we’ve worked on our teaching philosophy statements, exercised a deep-dive into the field of cognition and analyzed several different teaching techniques. And now here we are, looking at student experiences. As you probably figured, these differ from student to student and from class to class.

Now there has been some research conducted on why that is. For example, Linda Nilson portrayed in 1997 in a chapter of her book Teaching at Its Best a number of different frameworks to look at students’ learning styles. (Nilson, 1997) One of these frameworks is Kolb’s “model of the learning cycle and learning styles”, in which he derives a set of styles, called the “accommodator” who relies on concrete experience, the personally and emotionally involved “diverger”, the conceptualization-preferring “converger”, and the “assimilator” who excels at organization and synthesis. (Kolb, 1984) I won’t go into too much more detail explaining each of these, since you can read the paper yourself. However, there shall be one exception: our professor challenged us to identify our preferred learning style – “preferred” since there are so many factors influencing this and it can be quite hard to narrow it down.

So let’s talk about myself for a little bit and put the cards on the table. The description of an assimilator describes that type of learner as somebody who “combine[s] abstract conceptualization and reflective observation into a style that excels at organization and synthesis” as well as the fact that they “specialize in integrating large quantities of data into a concise, logical framework, from [which] they extrapolate theories and generalizations”. (Nilson, 1997) So far, so good. But does that really sound like me? Well, I’ve been doing release engineering since I was 16. Wikipedia describes release engineering as “a sub-discipline in software engineering concerned with the compilation, assembly, and delivery of source code into finished products or other software components”. (Wikipedia, 2011) Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. And to be honest, I do like it. I enjoy being able to pull several complex moving systems together, keep track of their schedule and integrate them all together into a final product. For example, that’s what I was doing as the release engineer of Sugar on a Stick that concluded components from Fedora (the operating system layer), Sugar (the desktop environment) and various Activities (the applications that run on top of the learning environment). And guess what? – Their respective developers weren’t necessarily talking to each other!

But that’s only one part of my case. Prepare yourself for a shocking revelation! For some inexplicable reason, I also enjoy researching highly-complex travel bookings that require me to pull multiple sets of data together and explore various possible options to hit the cheapest price-tag. While that might sound less exciting compared to release engineering to the average reader, it’s something I hadn’t noticed before. In a similar, albeit separate vein, assimilators apparently also appreciate “instructor demonstrations and modeling of problem-solving methods” (Nilson, 1997). This comes to no surprise: I personally find well-prepared lectures in which the instructor provides a walk-through for a certain problem just as exciting as project-based team-work approaches. That being said (and to add a grain of salt here), I wouldn’t describe myself as a full “assimilator”. Nevertheless, It appears to be the style that I can identify with the most, which is why I’ve decided to not modify that choice following the conversation in class. In the next paragraphs, I’ll add a grain of salt, as well as describe my choice of deliverable.

In particular, there are indications that I appreciate problem-solving and particularly cognitive apprenticeship models that enable and support direct interactions with mentors and instructors (who can but don’t necessarily have to be the same person). This last point has been especially shaped by some of the readings from my Teaching & Learning class. In my initial teaching philosophy statement, I wrote: “I work towards enabling my students to bridge the classroom and the real world.” (Dziallas, 2011) I fostered this belief through personal experiences in the world of software development communities, where strong mentors proved to be an invaluable and incredibly supportive resource to me. One of them later wrote that he had originally assumed that I was a teacher: “he was passionately involved in solving a problem that was important to him”. (LinuxQuestions, 2009) This passion is what I believe I need to facilitate for my students. Granted, not everyone is intrinsically motivated, but there are ways of increasing that chance. One of the papers I found tremendously helpful was John Seely Brown’s situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship (Brown, 1989). Taking “Just Plain Folks” (because that’s what we all are) and turning them into actual practitioners – through apprenticeship models – is something I strongly believe in.

And this brings me to the form of my deliverable: internet access for the masses has enabled the formation of communities that have proven to be incredibly powerful. Clay Shirky argues in his book Cognitive Surplus that we’re now learning how to use our free time in more meaningful ways, by communicating and collaborating in an open environment where the simple click on a button labeled “publish” can be enough to make a contribution. (Shirky, 2010) This goes hand in hand with Etienne Wenger’s framework of communities of practice that are all around us, in which people share a certain passion or concern and interact on the basis of this belief. (Wenger, 1996) One of the things that enable these communities is the ability to communicate freely, both in public and private channels. And as previously mentioned, this is something that I experienced myself and that shaped my way of learning thoroughly, through my time in the different open source communities. And that’s why I’m writing this assignment as a blog post, opening it for the community out there, to take it and comment away!

But before I diverge too much, let’s talk about my own classroom experience in college, here at Olin. It’s funny; one of the classes I enjoyed the most is Modeling & Simulation in my first semester. The class revolves around mathematical and physical problems, but introduces the student how to abstract unnecessary information away and create a model for a given phenomenon, which can then be converted into an actual simulation using, for example, MATLAB. Do you notice something? It includes conceptualizing complex real-world systems, analyzing them and using the logical framework of computer science to create a deliverable in form of graphs or even papers supporting a certain claim. If you go back a couple of paragraphs, you’ll notice that most of these aspects meet the assimilator’s learning style. On the other hand, another one of my classes, Design Nature, left me desiring change after the first few weeks. I had a particularly hard time in this class, since there wasn’t a lot of scaffolding being provided through my instructor and it dealt with topics I either hadn’t seen before or knew I wasn’t great at, inducing a sort of anxiety. This was a very open-ended class, walking students through a full design-process – first individually, then in teams. Later on (especially after the first half of the semester), I learned to appreciate the class though and I do believe that I learned a lot of lessons, both on the design and teamwork side of things.

Elaine Seymour authored an article called “the learning experience in SME majors” in 1997 that provides interesting insights in the perspective college students are taking on their curriculum. For example, a student writes: “In my first engineering class, we were required to do 18 programs and three different languages over the semester. We were given algorithms to use for each program and just one week to complete each of them. […] We were just expected to know so much that, if someone wasn’t willing to explain it to you, then you couldn’t do the programs.” (Seymour, 1997) This perspective seems to be much more than a single voice – rather, it represents a pattern of students calling out on so-called weed-out classes that don’t necessarily relate to just about anything. Introducing three different programming languages can very well be useful, for example in a course on programming languages that details the differences between each of them. But why would it be, in an entry-level engineering course? Luckily, I didn’t have any comparable experiences, but I feel it’s very much worth highlighting that a lot of students do. Unnecessarily so.

Another paper by Carroll Seron provides an overview of different student voices at Olin and Smith College, as well as MIT. An Olin student wrote: “The fact that the faculty respects and trusts us is also a big plus. […] We can work better in groups and learn team work skills this way, which helps when team projects are assigned.” (Seron, 2008) This position is obviously contrary to the previous point made. It’s something that I appreciate and value as part of the Olin experience, even back when I described it for the first time. (Dziallas, 2009) Being able to interact with faculty and students alike on a level that supports every single member of the community is a strong part in fostering collaboration. When asked to comment on a blog post for the admissions blog at Olin, I wrote: “Yes, go and meet people. They are amazing (it’s generally a safe assumption that most people at Olin are amazing [for one reason or another]).” (Rowley, 2011) I stand by this statement; however, I realize that it’s not always possible at all schools to create an atmosphere similar to the very unique one we have at Olin. But especially in those cases where it’s not possible at a school-level, I feel that it’s part of the instructors task to provide a framework that students can leverage to create a safe learning environment for each other. Again, this isn’t always easy – particularly when even single courses have the size of Olin’s entire student population (we’re looking at a number around 350 here). But it’s at least worth considering, since every single step can go a long way in making one more student comfortable in the classroom.

This way of improving the academic experience for students is unique, but it’s not related to different learning styles. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be considered – rather the opposite: faculty need to carefully consider their choices of pedagogical techniques and if possible provide alternative frameworks (for example, explicitly pointing out textbooks related to the course, even if purchasing them isn’t a requirement). In a similar vein, I believe that interacting with students as often as possible can prevent disappointing experiences. Even if an instructor doesn’t meet all learning styles at the same time (which they rarely, if ever, will), showing students that their feedback, opinions and thoughts are valued and considered and that they are taken seriously can help create a satisfying learning experience for all involved parties. And that’s probably the one advice I’d give.

Links

References

  • Nilson, Linda. “Teaching to Different Styles.” In Teaching at Its Best, Bolton: Anker Publishing Company, 1997, 79-86.
  • Kolb, A. and Kolb, D. “Learning Styles and Learning Spaces.” In Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2005, Vol. 4, No. 2, 193- 212.
  • Brown, A. S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” In Educational Researcher, 1989, 18, No. 1, 32-41. 
  • Shirky, Clay. “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
  • Wenger, E. et al. “Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Seymour, E. and Hewitt, N. “The Learning Experience in S.M.E. Majors.” In Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, Boulder: Westview Press, 1997, 88-177.
  • Seron, C. and Silbey, S. “A Day in the Life: Inventing Engineers.” Seron and Silbey, American Sociological Association, 2005.