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Engineering Students Can Do X

One of the many blessings in my life has been my ability to travel and help transform engineering education around the world. These experiences have given me some insight into today’s engineering students and have helped me see that no matter where we live, we’re not so different after all.

While cultures vary greatly from place to place, I’ve found that at the individual level engineering students are more similar than dissimilar. My colleagues elsewhere don’t necessarily see it that way, however. Prior to engaging students overseas, I’m often surprised when a colleague pulls me aside and says quietly, as if telling me a secret, “Dave, you need to understand something. You’re not in the United States anymore. You’re in __________ (fill in the blank), and students here don’t do X,” where “X” is the particular thing that these students supposedly don’t do or aren’t capable of doing. For example, I have been told various times and in various locations that engineering students aren’t curious, don’t answer questions, don’t ask questions, can’t talk about emotions, aren’t creative, and so on and so forth across a litany of supposed inadequacies and incapacities.

As an outsider in all these situations I was sensitive to my role, yet a part of me was always curious to observe students for myself to see if they really don’t do X. I have been privileged and blessed to be able to listen to engineering sons and daughters around the world in a way that is quite compelling, and I want to share what I’ve heard from some of the brightest young engineering students in the world. My hope is that by sharing my observations I can help us all seriously think about educational reform and transformation. The remainder of this article tells three stories of what I found to be true of engineering students worldwide.

Engineering Students Do Answer Questions

Over recent years, my style in the classroom has shifted from traditional lectures to a more Socratic question and answer style, and I was warned by my colleagues not to expect too much in the classroom with engineering students when you ask questions. “Engineering students are shy.” “They don’t answer questions.” “They will sit in silence,” I was told, and so I set out to find out whether this was true. In particular, on August 11th 2011, while I was working in Asia, I helped run a series of large-classroom pilot seminars for first-year engineering students entitled Mastering the Missing Basics of Engineering, and the first session was on Noticing, Listening, and Questioning. About 200 students showed up.

The first part of the session was on the power of awareness and noticing, and we started with the whole class standing and performing an active meditation exercise to increase their mindfulness and focus the class on the work ahead. Thereafter, the students paired up and were requested to tell each other stories about what they noticed during their previous day. In the exercise, one student tells a story, they switch and the other person tells a story. Thereafter, the class comes together and is debriefed by asking teams to report back and answer the following question: What did you notice about your noticing?

This can be a challenging exercise, even for adult participants, because it requires the participant (1) to be aware of what happened over the course of a day and (2) reflect and abstract patterns from the noticing that the person has shared. Much to the surprise of my colleagues, the freshmen were excellent at answering questions. Moreover they were brilliant noticers, and very articulate ones. For example, they noticed that emotionally salient events were easier to remember than others. They noticed that people and things closer to them were easier to recall than others. Some students noticed that their noticing was subpar that particular day because they were preoccupied with an exam or an assignment.

I remember thinking to myself that this one episode effectively puts the lie to a number of assessments: “Engineering students don’t answer questions,” “Engineering students aren’t reflective,” and “Engineering students aren’t articulate in spoken language.” All fell as even remotely interesting working hypotheses that afternoon.

Engineering Student Do Emotions

On another occasion, I was asked to hold discussions with first-year students in the Design-Centric Curriculum to help them understand their underlying motivations and purpose in life so they could pick first-year projects. In discussing this with some of the staff, it came out that project selection was believed to be difficult, in part, because “engineering students have a hard time talking about their passions.” Over the course of two weeks I interviewed 14 students in a total of 5 sessions, ranging in size from one-on-one to five students. At first, students talked about their projects in fairly superficial terms. But as the conversations went on it became clear that engineering students are actually quite good at “doing” emotion.

One particular session sticks out in my mind. A student from India had selected a project having to do with food. I asked him, “What is it that interests you about food?” He answered that working on food would help others.” I said that that was laudable and continued to probe, “What is it about food that matters to you personally?” It took a few more questions, but it turned out that this student’s grandfather had been a farmer, and there had been a famine, and life was very hard for his family. His hope for working on food was to work on something that would eliminate famine and hardship for others. It was clear from the session and others that engineering students are very able to reflect on their emotions and motivations. A number of my colleagues sat in on these sessions, and I believe it is fair to say that they were surprised by how quickly and how much students can reveal about emotions and passions when they are asked and listened to.

Engineering Students Want to Dare to Be Great

In February 2012, I was blessed to visit Hwa Chong Institution, one of the top high schools in the world, and I was asked to address some students from Hwa Chong as well as another school nearby. Earlier in the day, I had been shown a video in which a high ranking governmental official said that students there, like students in many places, “don’t dare to be great. They aspire to the comfort of the 85th percentile.” I was taken aback by this claim, and I didn’t think anything more about it until the question and answer period following my talk.

The topic of my talk was Presence and Effectuation: Two Complementary Ways of Being for the Servant Leader in a Creative Era, and I mainly engaged the 9th and 10th grade students (15 and 16-year olds) about leadership presence as authentic connection with another and presence to the moment as a way to making better decisions, especially career decisions. My colleagues were a little nervous that I was engaging the students in such a large class interactively without PowerPoint slides, but it went quite well with the students asking and answering in thoughtful ways about a number of leadership issues. This continued for some time, and then we went into the formal Q&A.

I started high in the back of the auditorium and there were a number of straightforward questions, which I answered in straightforward fashion. But as I came down the auditorium steps toward the front, a question from a young woman stopped me in my tracks. In particular, she asked the following question: “How do you learn to have the courage to be present as a leader?”

I smiled, and then a shiver ran down my spine. I knew in that moment what a beautiful question it was. I gave an answer (something having to do with the biological basis of fear and how it can be an overreaction to the threats we face in the modern world), but as I’ve reflected on this young woman’s question, I’ve pondered its implications for engineering education and for education transformation in general.

First, it seemed that the question was a kind of an answer to the government official who asserted that students don’t dare to be great. Extrapolating from her question, the young questioner’s reply to that person might have been something like the following: “No, we dare to be great. But how do we learn the courage to do so? And how can you change the culture of our education system to make this crucial learning a higher priority?”

Second, it seemed that the young woman’s question put the key issue on the table. Although I didn’t answer at the time in this way, all the programs that are

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successful in unleashing students to pursue learning through their passion do so by trusting them to take action, to make decisions, to fail, to learn, and to take action again.

In other words, the key ingredients in the chain that leads to authentic learning is for (a) teachers to trust their students, (b) for the students to believe they are trusted, (c) for students to take action based on that trust, and (d) to learn and discover how to learn from both the failures and successes of that messy process. Put differently, an answer to the young woman might have gone as follows:

You learn courage from

those who have the courage to let go,

who trust in you,

and who are present to you as you discover and explore.

And in this conclusion, I believe, lies the key to the transformation of engineering education everywhere.

Believing Engineering Students Can Do X

In short, what I’ve learned from these experiences is twofold. First, engineering students the world over can do X. Unlike what many believe, they answer questions. They are articulate. They aspire to greatness. They do emotions. And on and on and on. In short, the best and the brightest students are great kids who are world class in every way.

Second, what these great kids can do is severely underestimated by a broad swatch of exactly those people who are charged with the students’ education. This may sound a bit harsh, but I want to be clear that I’m not singling out my colleagues in any one location as unique in this regard. In the U.S., I think it is fair to say that my colleagues, in large measure, severely underestimate what American kids can do. The same goes for my colleagues in Europe, my colleagues in South America, you name it. Engineering professors the world over underestimate what their students can do. And in this common thread is the magic of the way out.

The way to transform engineering education everywhere is to really believe in our students, to trust them, and then unleash them so they can show us what they can do. This is easy to say. It is less easy to do, but we can learn how to do it, both as individuals and organizationally. And the way in starts with two easy steps.

First, we must learn how to listen to our students, not for the “right” answer, but for the answers they have. And to avoid questions with “right” answers, we must learn to ask open-ended questions — questions that cause our students to really think and reflect. These two steps, (1) active listening and (2) open-ended questioning, are easy enough to learn, but the crucial point here is that they are keystone habits that can take step by trusting and trusted step, thereby leading to a culture that really believes in and unleashes our students to pursue their hopes and dreams with courage and confidence.

Learning how to take these steps is easy, but the hard part goes back to my answer to the crucial question asked at Hwa Chong Institution. Do we have the courage to let go and believe in our young people so they can learn the courage to tackle our planet’s many challenges? I believe that our answer to this question is the dividing line between effective transformation and failed reform, and the choice is in our hands. No, actually, the choice is in our hearts.

Originally published on The Huffington Post on June 12th, 2012.

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