A new higher education radio program has hit the Voice America airwaves: Big Beacon Radio, Transforming Higher Education. Each…
Editor’s note: Big Beacon recently met Athena Lin online through her tweets and blog. She is a rising sophomore in Material Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois, and we were so taken with her positive perspective on engineering education that we have asked her to share her thoughts about engineering and engineering education with Big Beacon’s readers, and we’re hopeful that this will be the first of a continuing series of posts by her. Check out her other writings and tweets at Engineering 101: Confessions of a First-Year Engineering Student and @aalin16.
The Foundation of My Passion for Engineering Education
I first noticed the need for engineering education reform late into my first semester of college when I came across a staggering statistic – only 40% of freshmen engineering students graduate with a degree in engineering. I had heard for years – and knew firsthand – that engineering is a notoriously difficult major, but the percentage seemed shockingly low to me. I became committed to promoting engineering retention, and this summer I launched the blog “Engineering 101: Confessions of a First-Year Engineering Student” to document my freshman year experiences and the many, many lessons I learned – most of them involving how to learn and study engineering effectively. My goal is to reach out to the large community of current and aspiring engineering students and clear some common misconceptions about engineering and what our education entails in hopes that students will be better prepared for coursework and less likely to be discouraged early on.
I believe honesty and support are the best things we, as engineering students, have to offer in the movement to transform engineering education. By sharing our experiences and words of encouragement and collaborating with each other to improve our education, we can begin to inspire engineering students of the future.
A Presentation that Changed My Perspective on Failure, Learning, and Education
The most defining moment of my freshman year occurred in early May with the promise of free food. My department invited job candidates to give a mock lecture for the students, and I had planned to attend the event as a study break and enjoy the free lunch. The lecture was about material failure in metals, and most of the presentation involved complex equations and board work that my freshman brain struggled to comprehend.
The words that resonated with me most were towards the beginning of the presentation. The presenter projected a slide with numerous photos depicting catastrophes – Titanic, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the sinking of the South Korean ferry this past April. He asked us what these disasters had in common. The unanimous response was that they were all examples of material failure. He replied, “No, they were the result of human failure.”
His words had a profound impact on me. All year, I was wrapped up in introductory calculus and physics courses, drilling formulas into my head that I would surely forget over summer break. I had begun to lose sight of my purpose as an engineering student. The presentation reminded me of why I chose to major in materials science and encouraged me to persevere and study to the best of my ability. And in this lecture came the greatest realization of my freshman year:
Study to learn the material, not to perform well on tests. When you study to learn, you aren’t just studying for yourself. You’re studying for your future and all the people your career will impact.
From Studying for Grades to Studying for Understanding
Most of my studying for my courses had been in pursuit of an A on the next test. Learning became a very mechanical process for me. I poured hours of my life into my textbooks and my notes for a percentage in the grade book. Right in time for spring semester finals, my attitude towards learning shifted and carried me through the last, most grueling weeks. I reread chapters in my materials science textbook and found joy where I once found dread. Three hours of lecture a week culminated in dawning comprehension as all the concepts and topics presented in the course intertwined in my mind. I rekindled my passion for my studies, something I had worried was lost for good. When I wasn’t preoccupied with obsessing over what might be covered on the test, I was able to study much more effectively and retain much more information. More importantly, I enjoyed the thirst for knowledge. We hear so much about our promise and how we can change the world, and I think it’s also important for students to be reminded of the social responsibility that comes along with it. Nobody wants to be the engineer that is responsible for the loss of peoples’ lives. Our education is the start of our contributions to society, and we must invest ourselves in our education so we can deliver on our promises to better the world.
Who Inspires You?
As a student, I think the greatest power of a professor is to inspire students to learn. In this digital age, with information accessible at our fingertips throughout the Internet and through published textbooks, a professor’s ability to inspire students to learn becomes paramount. That evening, I wrote an email to the speaker to thank him for his powerful words and for inspiring me to change my attitude towards my education. I urge you to take a moment to thank every person who has impacted your life in some way, who has brought you one step – whether a leap or shuffle in the right direction – closer towards finding and achieving your dreams.
Finding Your Own Meaning in Engineering Education
The path to an engineering degree is cluttered with demanding course loads and flooded with formulas and equations, and it’s easy to lose sight of our purpose in studying engineering. My path to greater meaning consisted of free pizza, a presentation on metallurgical failure, and the realization that my education will have impacts extending far beyond my college years. Aspire to find your path, and if you’re feeling lost, I encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, because one of them will lead you to your passion. You never know when you will step into the event that will spark or reignite your interests and give you the strength to persevere and chase your aspirations. And even if you only attend for the free food, you might discover that pizza is a key ingredient in passion.