10: Become an Educator

I never thought being a teacher would make me a better engineer.   It is undoubtedly the best decision I have ever made as an engineer.  If not interested in teaching in a formal university setting, teach your fellow colleagues at work, set up lunch seminars ,etc. It allows you to reflect on important concepts and theories that you thought you understood but never really did.   In order to teach, you need to be able to translate complex ideas into clear language which requires that you master the material.  It also allows you to explore how best to communicate to people with different learning styles.  As we know, teaching is not about sharing facts, it is about assisting the student in discovery - but how?  I learned a couple tricks in my young career as an educator (now only 8 years).

One is to simply understand how knowledge itself is transferred and then retained. Socrates can even help us understand how structural engineering can be taught.  We know from his actions and through Plato's writings that he is clearly able to help us understand the importance of a liberal education (helping students in the process of discovery, so their knowledge is their own).  How does this translate to engineering education?  For Socrates, education within any classroom needs to foster freedom and inquiry.   He lost his life in defense of the spirit of inquiry (read the Apology or Crito). The most telling dialog of Socrates on the importance of inquiry is Plato's Meno. It is where we find Socrates asking fundamental questions about learning/teaching itself and the method of attaining knowledge.  I wrote about Meno, see “Socrates, How is Engineering Knowledge Attained?”  in STRUCTURE magazine April 2013, and edited the entire dialog (replaced words) because I think this is exactly the type of conversation that should take place in all of our classrooms.  I also borrowed heavily most of these ideas from my Dad's writing on liberal education... that every class needs to foster enquiry (especially about how ignorance is important to recognize, to be able to learn).  It took me a while to understand that a liberal education should be the same as an engineering education.  We need to resist cramming students' heads with more and more knowledge, whether it is more mathematics, new theory based on a particular research agenda, or trends in the marketplace.  This may numb the minds of our future engineers, let them seek information when they are ready.  Again, teaching should be about assisting the student in discovery (a liberal education), not supplying knowledge or listing the latest facts.  So we need to ask questions, open the classroom up and share our thoughts on solutions, criticize and praise worthy ideas, etc.  We do not want engineers who merely regurgitate what they have been taught and what they have memorized. We want them to struggle and to engage the world and people in meaningful ways. We want engineers with a spirit of inquiry and love of learning that will last a lifetime. So we had better make sure that Socrates joins us in every class.

A second idea is to teach forwards, not backwards.   This means, like our engineering history, our knowledge sharing should start from actively playing in the world and with materials - and then later asking how science and math contribute - not the other was around!   For example, I can lecture about the moment of inertia and provide the mathematical derivation or formula for stiffness.  Or, I can hand the students strips of wood to play with and ask them "why is one stiffer and by how much?" The math should never be the start, it is the end (see "science is applied engineering" blog to understand how art and engineering are the beginnings, and science and math, the ends of design).  Never teach backwards - unfortunately, that is how most do it (I am certainly guilty of this too, since it is actually much easier to teach backwards).

You can make four strips of wood (or Masonite), say 1″ wide by 1/8″ thick.   Take a pair and tape the middle together, take another pair and only tape the ends.   Feel the difference in stiffness…

The one you one tape in the middle will act as two separate beams.  The one you taped at the ends will act as one beam with double the thickness.  How much stiffer will the beam that is taped at the ends be?   Since deflection is proportional to moment of inertia, and I is proportional to thickness cubed, it will be 4 times more stiff!  Two cubed is eight, and 1 cubed times 2 members is 2, and 8/2 = 4.  It will be double the strength and 4 times the stiffness – just by taping the ends so it resists horizontal shear and acts as a composite beam.  Go ahead and try this simple experiment in your classroom and design other ones. Let the numbers follow the art/design/engineering and try to teach that way, teach forwards, just like our history (and the same way as how we design).


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