Selasa, 17 September 2013

What's Wrong with Undergraduate Education

I wrote an article last year about what's wrong with high school math. I thought it was a pretty good article. But just last week a guy in Switzerland posted an article about what's wrong with graduate-level education...actually it was his letter of resignation from his PhD studies. It was a devastating critique of the pretensions and self-delusions of higher-level academia, and it instantly attracted a collosal number of hits. It speaks to a lot of the reasons why I never got a PhD.

But in between the high school level and the PhD level, there is the huge field of undergraduate education. I've written a few articles on my other blog about some of my experiences as an Education student, but I have a much more important story to tell about my experience years ago in the Faculty of Engineering. After all, everyone already suspects (at least I would) that Education profs are just a bunch of fad-following pretenders...but engineering? That's got to be for real...isn't it?

In fact, there is a tremendous weakness in engineering education which is a direct consequence of the things that Gene Bunin wrote about in his PhD expose. It's because the whole  of academia...arts, sciences, engineering, what have entirely based on the trickle-down theory of education: that the undergraduates will get an "excellent" education because they are in the presence of high-level academics doing "excellent" research. The theory breaks down because the whole premise of "excellence" in research is based on cliques of professors patting each other on the back for generating meaningless grist for the publication mills.

In engineering the consequence is that instead of studying under practical-minded engineers with real-world experience, students learn from academic Engineering PhD's who wouldn't know the first thing about putting up a strip mall (never mind a bridge, or a foundry!) but know all about how to get "research" published in journals. And a major aspect of this cult of publication is to put supreme value on everything new and "original", which has a flip-side of viewing classical knowledge with scorn and disdain. To most professors, undergraduate education is nothing but a mass of boring formulas that have to be mastered before you are qualified to do "important" research at the "cutting edge of knowledge".

In engineering the harm is double-edged: not only do you have a complete absence of the practical knowledge you are going to need on the job (I never heard of the "Building Code" until years after I graduated!) but the theoretical knowledge...the thing that the education system supposedly prides itself a disaster. Accreditation committees compete with each other to prove that they are maintaining ever-higher standards of "excellence", so the curriculum gets cluttered up with so many advanced mathematical topics that it is utterly impossible for any normal student to understand what he is supposed to be learning. There is no choice but to memorize formulas and drill on problem sets so you can pass the exams. Understanding what you're doing?...that's out of the question.

I never saw the truth of all this more clearly than when I went around the Faculty of Civil Engineering, twenty years ago at the University of Manitoba, asking professors and students the Diving Board Question.

I was working at the time as a Lab Technician in the Structures Lab. My job was instrumentation: we would glue strain gauges up and down a steel or concrete beam, subject it to stresses, and measure the distortion in the gauges. It was quite fascinating, and I found myself learning quite a bit about structural theory. (My undergrad degree was in Electrical. And no, I never saw the Electrical Code either until I graduated.)

Anyhow, one day I had just finished helping  a Master's Student run his load tests, and as I was eyeballing the strain gauge data, I remarked to him that until I had started working in this lab, I had never understood how a diving board works.

"What do you mean?" he asked me. I explained that I never realized that the curvature of the board was everywhere different as you moved down the board from one end to the other...that it didn't simply bend into an arc of a circle.

My friend was still baffled. I drew a sketch to show him what he meant. "That's not how a diving board curves", he said. And he drew his own version, which was different from mine.

This was too much. I had to ask someone else. And the next thing you know, I was going from one grad student to another, setting out the problem and asking for their solution. And everyone had a different answer!

Over the next week I asked maybe fifty grad students and as many undergrads, and seventeen professors. Only eight of the seventeen profs got it right. Of the students, I was appalled to find only three that answered correctly.

This was no trick question, or an accident that could be blamed on one bad undergrad prof. The question I was asking was basically the iconic case of a bending literally couldn't ask a question more central to the basic understanding of beam theory. And the grad students were mostly international, from the four corners of the world. What I was seeing was a true reflection of the way civil engineering is taught in the universities.

Later I wrote this story up and submitted to the Winnipeg Free Press, where it ran as an opinion piece. I was immediately condemned by the engineering and academic communities. One professor of Electrical Engineering wrote a letter to the paper where he explained that Marty Green was this kind of smart-ass who was known for going around asking trick questions to embarass people. I will never forgive Bob McLeod for that. He was certainly not there when I asked anyone the question, so how would he know? What he did was as bad as the police officers who back each other up when one of them is accused of beating a's a lie that people justify by a misguided sense of collegial solidarity.

I can prove that it wasn't a trick question. No, I can't prove it to you or to Bob McLeod, because you weren't there. But I can prove it to myself because I was there. First, I always took great pains to sketch out the situation, discuss what I meant by "curvature", and ask the subject if he understood what I was asking. I even drew little strain gauges on the beam, showing them hooked up to a meter the way I do it in the lab, to show that the "curvature" was exactly the thing that we measured with strain gauges. Only then would I ask him to sketch the distribution of curvature along the board...just as though you had a series of ten strain gauges equally spaced...what would the readouts look like?

I said I would prove it wasn't a trick question...well, that's not the proof. The proof comes later. After they gave me the wrong answer, I would draw the graph showing the right answer, and then I would ask them if they agreed. No, they would shake their heads, that doesn't look right. Or they'd come up with some flim-flam nonsense argument about the anisotropic properties of the wooden board to justify themselves.

That's not what you do when you've been suckered by a trick question. You say, "Oh, of course I knew that. They way you asked the question, it sounded like you asking this." No one said that to me.

There's one more proof that it wasn't a trick question, but I'm going so save that for later, when I take up the question of why everybody gets it wrong. Right now I want to return to the question of why I'm so pissed with Bob McLeod for publically dismissing my case on behalf of the university. I believe that there is a tremendous sickness in higher education and something needs to be done about it. People ask me, well what would you do? I tell them it doesn't matter what I propose...nothing is going to happen as long as people don't recognize that there is a problem in the first place. As long as these profs go running around to conferences, publishing papers and patting each other on the back, and giving each other awards for "excellence", and talking about how they're pushing back the frontiers of long as they don't admit to themselves that something is wrong!...there's no hope. What I did by publishing that article was to open the door a tiny crack, to the possiblity that people should think twice about what goes on in academia.  If Bob McLeod hadn't jumped forward to slam that door shut, I suppose someone else would have probably done it instead. But he's the one who did it, and I can never forgive him for that.


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