Posts that are engineering edu-ish

On the diversity-readiness of STEM environments: “It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor.”

My thoughts from an online discussion with other female Olin engineers on this NYT article on “how to attract female enginers,”, edited for context. In particular, we brought up the (well-worn) claim that women don’t want to “just focus on the tech stuff” and want to “do sociotechnical/humanitarian work that makes a difference in the world.”

I’ve built my career as a “technical community person” who “thinks beyond the technology,” and as a teacher and researcher of learning environments — so this may come as a surprise to people who know and have worked with me. But if my teenage self had had her way, I would have VASTLY preferred to “just focus on the tech stuff.”

As a kid, I wanted to choose the privilege of being oblivious and keeping my head down and immersing myself into the beauty — the sheer beauty! — and joy of STEM for STEM’s sake. I didn’t become an ECE to work on educational computers or hearing aids or anything like that. As my friend (and former roommate) Kristen Dorsey said, “I just geek out about nerdy stuff, OK?”

But I couldn’t “just geek out about nerdy stuff.” The environments where I was trying to “learn about nerdy stuff” were sociotechnically broken in a way that made it hard for me (as a disabled minority woman, among other things) to join in. If I wanted to even start being part of the technical community, I had to start by fixing the technical community — patching the roof and fixing the plumbing, so to speak — before I could even walk inside and start to live there. And when I patched the leaking roof, I patched the roof for everyone, and other people who needed non-leaky roofs to be in the community could now… be in the community as well!

For instance, I got really, really good at facilitating meetings because it was the only way I had to make meetings accessible to me — when other people facilitated meetings, they’d often forget I need to lipread, so… I just quietly started leading them myself, and ended up making meetings work better for everyone. And I found that when I drifted towards “humanitarian” projects, the people there were much more conscious of sociotechnical things and more likely to have already-healthy environments, so I would have less leaky roofs to patch, and less resistance when I tried to patch the roofs — and people actually recognized and valued roof-patching labor instead of looking down on me for not writing code full-time.

After a while of patching roofs and unclogging toilets and plastering the rotten drywall, I got a reputation in industry for being really, really good at open-source software/hardware (technical) community facilitation. It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor. And part of me resented that, but never said so. But, I told myself, at least I was in the building. And I saw that my “janitorial” work made it possible for other people to enter the building and do the things they wanted to do — which were often the things I wanted to do, too! — and so I thought: okay. That’s okay. At least somebody gets to do it. I can see my gift to the community doing so much good, that I will give up my desire to learn and do the technical things — so I let my own STEM learning slide. I am good at “community work,” and I did come to genuinely love it, over time.

But if I had the choice, I would have never gone into “community work.” I would have chosen — if I had the choice — to focus on “shiny tech stuff” that… didn’t save the world at all. If my teenage self had had her way, I would not do community-facilitation-anything, I would not be thoughtful about women or minorities or disabilities or any underprivileged group in engineering… I would be oblivious to all my privilege. I’d be a kernel hacker, or an embedded geek, or something “hardcore technical,” Because I could be.

But I didn’t have the wherewithal (or the desire) to shovel all the stuff out of the way that I would have to do in order to do that. If you think of “caring/environmental labor” as a sort of tax some people have to pay in order to get to “learning/doing technical things,” my tax rate has always just been too frickin’ high.

So I have been “the full-time community person who is ridiculously good at tech stuff that she no longer gets to do,” instead of “the technical person who understands and listens to and cares about inclusion and community.” Because I cannot not patch a leaky roof. But I have always wondered what I might have grown up into, if I had learned STEM in an environment that was ready for me — without me having to fix it first.

On contract/specs-based grading and intrinsic motivation

My undergrad roommate Kristen (now Dr. Dorsey, after earning her PhD in ECE from CMU) emailed me about an article on specs-based grading, asking what effect it might have on intrinsic motivation (which we’d been discussing with some of our former suitemates over an extended email thread. I love my suitemates).

My reply was that I’ve also heard the technique called “contract grading,” and it has pluses and minuses. This Chronicle of Higher Ed article has a decent discussion of the minuses, which mostly consist of “watch out for loopholes and students trying to game your system to do minimal work.”

Contract or specs-based grading is exactly what it sounds like: writing out detailed instructions as to what students must do to earn a certain grade in class. And I mean detailed. Turn-your-class-into-a-videogame detailed. The kind of contract you’d write out when specifying a technical component you’re outsourcing to a subcontractor. “If you submit 4 of these 10 assignments and are absent fewer than 3 times, you get a B.” “To earn an A, your essay must answer the following questions in grammatically correct English…”

There’s been a limited amount of empirical research on its effects. Via the POD mailing list, here’s a study on contract grading’s effects on a science class (psychology) and a humanities class (composition). Spoiler: contract grading was “more effective” at student retention and higher grades than a traditionally-graded control group.

Now: what about intrinsic motivation — the sort of thing most teachers wish their students had? You know, the students who want to learn about nanoelectronics because it’s so beautiful! and they love love love electronics! just like you do.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Intrinsic motivation can be fragile, and extrinsic rewards can destroy it. If a kid loves playing the violin, and you start rewarding her with ice cream every time she plays, she may learn to play in order to get ice cream — and will stop playing the violin as soon as the ice cream ceases.

This means (in my opinion) that contract grading contracts should be written so that students who are on fervent fire can keep on running without needing to stop to puzzle out bean-counting. Your expectations should be clear and flexible enough that students who do have a project in mind can see how they would do those things anyway if they were doing the project well — the goal here is minimal re-routing of an intrinsically motivated student who’s already running full-tilt down a path. Also, the contract should explicitly state that students can talk with you about renegotiating the contract to fit a project they really want to do.

Depending on your student population, you may or may not not have a lot of intrinsically motivated students from the first day. Hopefully you won’t have many amotivated ones who just don’t care at all. If so, the contracts can help by turning amotivated students into extrinsically motivated students. Extrinsic motivation means that they are motivated, but by something other than an inner love for the subject.

Extrinsic motivation has a bunch of sub-categories, but it’s not necessarily “bad.” Heck, we try to extrinsically motivate students: “you should do well in this class because it’ll help you get a job.” (People often confuse intrinsic with extrinsic motivation. “He’s so motivated to do well because he wants to keep his scholarship!” is still extrinsic motivation — you may not need to keep prodding this student to do his work, but the scholarship is what’s driving him, not necessarily a deep-seated love for circuit theory.)

Basically, contracts can turn all students into extrinsically motivated students — which is great for amotivated students, but not so good for intrinsically motivated ones. So be careful when writing your contracts so that the amotivated students can’t find loopholes — and the intrinsically motivated students won’t get distracted by having to worry about “playing the game” in order to get points.

Sarcastic Mel Sighting: backstory of “Communicating Is So Inefficient” (PRISM column)

Apparently, I have a snarky side. This post is the backstory for how my recent ASEE Prism column, “Communicating Is So Inefficient,” came to be.

TL;DR summary: the article’s first sentence is “After years of observing engineering education, I’ve finally figured out what our goal is: minimal student-teacher interaction.” The rest of the article points out the observations that led to this conclusion, in the vein of this SMBC comic of aliens speculating about the human war against plant genitalia (translation: we give flowers as gifts).

The article started after several colleagues approached me, in separate conversations, and started venting like this: “Aargh! I am trying to do this thing that requires students to start an open-ended dialogue with me about their work in the discipline, and…”

At this point, they would say some combination of these three things:

A) The students don’t get it, don’t do it, and are complaining that I’m “not teaching them”!
B) Senior colleagues/admins tell me I’m not supposed to do that if I want to survive tenure!
C) It is impossible to have these conversations with all the students I’ve been given, in the time I’ve been allotted, while still covering the content I’m required to cover!

Basically, I was hearing my colleagues genuinely thirsting to interact with students — engage with their individual processes, help shepherd what they were creating, get to know them — and running into an education system that penalized them for doing so. At some point, I started giving this response to point (A):

“Of course they don’t want to talk to you. These were the ‘smart kids’ in high school. They’ve been conditioned to associate ‘asking a question’ with ‘not knowing stuff.’ If you talk to a teacher, that means you’re failing and something is wrong.”

And then I realized that it wasn’t just the students who’d been conditioned this way. My colleagues were the teachers who were actively resisting the same system trying to condition them away from talking with their students. I started getting sarcastic in those conversations. “Oh, no, you can’t do that. We need to process more students through the system. No, no, we just need to automate everything. Not just the grading. The teaching and the learning, too.”

When people laughed at an observation I’d made, I wrote it down. And then I started putting them together into paragraphs, and then my editor emailed and said “we need your column” and I hadn’t written anything else…

And that’s how the rare sighting of Sarcastic Mel came to be.

Pushing back on the STEAM acronym

Kathleen Hickey, my Jazz dance teacher, recently asked us to reflect on some newspaper articles about “STEAM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math — an addition to the usual acronym of “STEM”). Here’s what I wrote.

As someone who’s an artist (writer, musician, illustrator, dancer, improv theatre performer, and more), engineer (electrical/computer/software), and engineering education researcher, I have a whole tangle of thoughts on this topic that goes far beyond the confines of this short reflection, but I’ll try to be brief.

I’ll start by saying three things:

  1. I’m an artist and an engineering educator.
  2. The “STEAM” acronym annoys me terribly.
  3. The reason it annoys me is that I see “artist” and “engineer” as the same identity.

There’s not a hard boundary between “STEM” and this “art stuff.” The acronym of STEAM does itself both a service and a disservice – yes, engineering and art should both taught, but to say they should be taught “alongside” one another seems to imply that they are separate things, and that we can split them into buckets and then conveniently stack them atop each other. Both articles treat “A” and “STEM” as distinct entities, with verbiage like “applying technology to the arts” or “incorporating the arts into science.”

This seems to imply that one has to choose sides, to code-switch, to belong (or at least belong first) to one culture or the other, which can start the two worlds touching – but will ultimately keep them from merging. It will also make it more difficult for people who identify with both to comfortably express themselves as fully integrated – the dominant rhetoric and metanarrative won’t allow it. Pick one, or say you’re one of those strange double-major, cross-disciplinary oddities; compartmentalize.

Art has engineering inside it; it always has. Partnering work teaches us about biology, friction, and structure. Choreography has patterns, repetition, shape. STEM has art inside it; it always has. We make color-coding choices in our graphs, dream about snakes to understand how benzene molecules circle together. This world is fluid and interconnected, and our minds are what tease everything apart. It becomes politically convenient to separate them into distinct departments and colleges and funding sources; it becomes a resource strategy to write grants calling for an “A” in “STEAM” – and so we do. Good things happen when we do that, to be sure.

But this is a story – one of many stories that could be told. And we must look at the narrators, and their motives, and the other interpretations that those narrators could have chosen but have instead rejected, and the functions that these stories serve.

How to succeed in engineering as a disabled person (poem)

I’ve been asked how to succeed in engineering as a disabled person. This answer — which is sarcasm, by the way — came out during a recent long drive to Kentucky. It’s intended to be spoken-word poetry, and was inspired by an intersectionality conversation last month with Joi-Lynn Mondisa.

(Also, I want to point out that I had wonderful friends in engineering undergrad and grad school; I also wish I could have been in a state of less exhaustion and been able to better appreciate those friendships at that time.)

How to succeed in engineering as a disabled person

Work hard.
If something comes up, don’t get frustrated.
Be proactive.
Work the system.

Don’t get angry.
Don’t have feelings.
Don’t realize how tired you are.
Don’t realize that what you’re doing is extra labor.
Stay oblivious. Focus on your classwork.

Don’t ask for help.
Don’t look dumb.
And never show signs that you’re struggling.
That any of this is any harder for you.
That any of this ever hard for you.

Don’t socialize.
Don’t have friends.
Especially disabled friends. You might start comparing notes.
Besides, you’re too tired to hang out with them anyway.

Don’t try to find out what you don’t know.
There are a lot of things you don’t know that you don’t know.
That’s good. Keep it that way. That’ll let you keep working yourself to death.

Oh, and stay away from disability-related things.
Accessibility initiatives. Activism.
They might mess up that delicate balance of ignorance you’ve worked so hard to build.
You might get mad at how unfair it is.
Or how much life is stacked against you.
Or how much you have to fight.
And how little anybody recognizes it.
And that would be distracting from your work.

And besides, you don’t need any of that help, do you?
That’s just for people who aren’t good enough to make it on their own.
But you?
You’re good enough to do it, right?


You gotta prove that, you know.
You gotta prove you’re worth it.
Show you’re functional. Always. Constantly.

So don’t think too hard about it.
Just work. That’s what you’re worth as a human.
Work hard.

And that’s how you succeed in engineering as a disabled person.

Realtime transcript of “Using Realtime Transcription” FIE 2014 talk

This is the anonymized transcript of my Frontiers in Education (FIE) 2014 conference talk. The paper title is “Using Realtime Transcription to do Member-Checking During Interviews” and the authors are myself (Mel Chua) and Robin S. Adams. Since the paper was about realtime transcription, I did not use a slide deck. Instead, I projected a CART feed (live captions) for my own presentation as I spoke, so that my audience could see me demo what I’d written about. The transcript below is therefore both (1) what was said verbally, and (2) what was shown on the screen. All names, except mine and Lynn’s (who requested to be identified in this transcript), have been changed.

MEL CHUA: Okay. This is actually a two-slide presentation. Oh, hi, everybody, I’m Mel. I’m from Purdue and I’m doing that dissertation thing and I do qualitative research, so I do lots of interviews. But there’s one little bit of a wrinkle — I’m deaf, so talking is hard.

[new slide explaining the CART acronym]

One thing I use in my classes for accessibility is something called CART. It stands for Communication Access Real-Time Translation. And that’s what it looks like. And it’s basically a stenographer who comes and types super, super fast on a magic chording keyboard what people are saying, which is one of the reasons I’m wearing a microphone and a microphone will be passed around the room. What ended up happening was I just used CART for my interviews. And one of the side benefits of CART is you get a transcript right while you’re talking.

[new slide with the agenda in bullet-points]

What I’m going to be presenting is what it looks like, and what are some of the implications of CART, because it actually has some interesting implications for research methodology and subject positionality and the kind of interactions you have during the conversations.

I thought that the best way to do that would actually be to show you what this is. And so everybody, say hello to Becky. (Note: name has been changed.) Becky is my captioner for today.

[switches from slides to a live Streamtext of the CART for the talk -- the realtime transcript of the event scrolls on the projector for the remainder of the talk]

THE AUDIENCE: Hello, Becky.

MEL CHUA: Becky, everyone says hi. Do you want to say hello to everyone?

BECKY (typed on the screen): (Hi, everyone!) (How are you today?)

MEL CHUA: Yeah, sometimes people ask me, “What speech recognition software are you using?” It’s not a software, it’s a person. So that’s the point. I wanted to show people a little bit about what it looks like and what can happen when you do this kind of thing during an interview. Tom was kind enough to volunteer to do a mini demo. (Note: name has been changed.) Hi, Tom.

TOM: Hi, Mel.

MEL CHUA: Tom, can you tell me a little bit about the balance you strike between research and how you do including diversity in the classroom?

TOM: And including diversity in the classroom?


TOM: That’s a great question. I just started a new job at a teaching university in [SCHOOL NAME] so I don’t have structured expectations to teach. I teach 9 credits, 3 courses this semester. That’s considered on the light side compared to some of my colleagues. So I have a structural place for teaching.

And I have a structural blessing — an institutional blessing to do research but I don’t really have a structural place to do it. So ways that I kind of — I incorporate strategies by — I strategize by collaborating with other universities that give me a structure. I have two days off. Not really off. But I’m not teaching classes. For two afternoons, Monday and Friday.

And that really — on Friday I focus on research. Monday, teaching. And how that — and I bring myself to foster diversity in the classroom. By trying to be attentive to those who — I’m in a [small school in a US state]. It’s a pretty homogenous population so I do notice — and we are very male dominated. I do notice when those — come in my classroom that may not feel like they identify with everyone else. So there were some strategies with stereo — protecting against stereotype threat that I try to incorporate in the classroom. Is that about time?

MEL CHUA: Yeah, that’s awesome. Thanks, Tom. And so if you hold on for a moment, you might notice we actually have a transcript up already. One thing we can do right now is scroll back a bit and say, Tom, it’s member check time. Hang onto this for a moment. [hands Tom the microphone]

TOM: Okay.

MEL CHUA: I’m going to scroll through real quick some bits of what you said, and if you see something that seems interesting and pops out to you and you want to talk a little more about it, stop me and then just say that.

TOM: Okay. And by the way, this is completely unrehearsed. So you know. (Audience laughter) Okay. I’m looking. I start off pretty descriptive. Probably to gain comfort with the question. And so I talk with what I know. Right off the bat. So yeah, go down a little bit… and if we looked up, I’m — I have like some — maybe go up — back up, I’m sorry. It’s like right in between. In an in-between spot.

Yeah, where I say I have a structural place for teaching and I have a structural blessing — an institutional blessing I’m correcting myself there to do research but I don’t really have a structural place to do it. I kind of — I have some pause about that. Because I’m thinking, oh, what if this were to get out. And how would this reflect on the university that hires me and feeds my wife and kids and me.

But I’m okay with it. But it does give me some pause whenever I see it. So we’re good. Do you want me to keep going? Okay.

MEL CHUA: Thanks, Tom. Keep in mind this was a quick demo. In an actual research interview you would go much longer and much more in depth. Just from this you can see a couple of implications. First of all, member checking can be done in the same session as the interview, so the dropout problem that you have — it can get at that a little bit.

Second, the positionality. So instead of subject interviewer, Tom became sort of a co-analyser or co-researcher and his reflecting on his own words and so forth. While it was still fresh in his mind. And that’s actually something that a lot of participants do in interviews anyway. In Holstein and Gubrium’s “The Active Interview” from 1995. [pause to let captioner catch up] Wow. Okay. They talked about indigenous coding, which is when people are in the middle of an interview and they say things like, “Oh, just like I said before.” Or, “This is a good example of…” and they start analyzing and reflecting on what they have said.

But the difference is that what Tom was able to do, you saw that he went back up to a portion of his transcript and then quoted the exact words he said instead of having to remember it. So it’s indigenous coding. But it’s grounded in the direct verbatim words of a transcript.

Another thing this does is it makes transcription more visible as a methodological choice we’re making. A lot of times we just go, oh, transcripts, transcription, transcription. But that’s not actually the case. The choices we make can have a big impact on way we analyze and way we present our findings. This makes it much more visible.

There are some downsides. You’ve got to set this up in advance. Because it’s a person. You have another person’s schedule to juggle, but it’s much like if you were doing a foreign language interview and needed a Spanish translator or something, not that different.

Cost-wise it’s about for — shall — it’s about like paying an undergrad to transcribe thing except it’s faster, much faster.

Some people feel a little weird when doing this. I will sometimes use Google Docs and have a transcriber write into a Google Doc so we can correct it, correct typos in the middle. Some people report it’s a little distracting to see their words pop up so they don’t look at the screen. Everyone responds to it in different ways.

And I wanted to close off by there’s a few folks in the room that’s been subject to this particular method and I wanted to give them a chance to speak to what that’s actually like.

Dave. I asked him before [the talk if he'd like to speak]. (Note: name has been changed.)

DAVE: One thing I notice is when you were going through this, you kind of switched from — from this descriptive mode to then reflecting on what you’re describing, and I found that in participating in this, I would — in particular when we would go back to the transcript in a follow-up session, I would look at things that I said and just enter this reflecting… “Hmmm, why did I use that word, or why did I use that phrase, and do I actually think that, and how do I feel about this being transparent and out there for the world to see?”

It’s certainly a sense of unease at times, but I actually found it really useful for development in my own thinking to look at my words both as they were appearing and then a week later or so or two weeks later and reflecting why in the world I would say certain things. Yeah, it’s… terrifying, also. (Audience laughter)

MEL CHUA: I’m continuing to experiment with this stuff, I’m happy to talk with people about it. Robin Adams, my advisor and co-author, is sitting right there and can also speak to what this method. She’s been on both ends of the microphone.

I thought I would leave some time for questions because this might be the first time a lot of people have seen this.


AUDIENCE QUESTIONER: Thank you. Does it lend itself available for all types of analysis for example analysis where you do have (Audio cutting in and out) — analyzers and those are kind of getting lost, as well?

MEL CHUA: Are you still getting audio okay?

BECKY (captioner, typed on the screen): (It was cutting in and out a little bit).

>> MEL CHUA: Okay. I guess that would answer my question.

So that’s a great question. And actually one of the things CART does is that it makes transcription very visible as a deliberate choice of methodology, so it’s probably not the right choice for super precise verbal protocol analysis type stuff. Also, when I do this, I always make a backup audio recording just this case something cuts off or I want to go back and make sure that’s exactly what was said. Because, yes, you do lose some of the precision just like you would with any type of interpreter or translation type thing. I think of this as sound detection. So it’s not appropriate for everything. But when it’s just communicative, [it works].

AUDIENCE QUESTIONER: (Speaker off mike).

MEL CHUA: Yeah; yeah. The backup gives me a good idea if there’s a part that was super fast or I had a really weird, you know, Russian author name that we need to track, that kind of thing. Any other questions?

AUDIENCE QUESTIONER: So in interviews when people hear voices on audiotapes a lot of times people are like, “That’s what I really sound like?” or on TV, they are embarrassed, like, “That’s what I look like?” Here you see a little bit of that effect, I guess like, “That’s what I really said.” Is that hard to get past? Is that part of the protocol, is that what you’re analyzing?

MEL CHUA: [to Lynn Andrea Stein, another audience member] Do you want to answer that question? (Note: Lynn is Lynn’s actual name; she requested to be identified in this transcript.)

LYNN: I knew that was my question. (audience laughter) Mel and I started using this protocol when she was interviewing me for [a research project], and I can’t read the transcription. And we actually switched to using a method in which I just type to Mel and we type back and forth, because as good as Becky and her colleagues are, it’s exactly that I can’t stand to hear my voice, I can’t stand to see somebody else’s transcription. I worry a lot about precision, so for me, because I can type fast enough that we can have a real-time conversation, this method was really difficult. And part of me is grateful — I love the real-time conversation and analysis of the conversation as it goes. And I also wish that I could tolerate this method because I think it’s great and I just can’t get myself to do it.

MEL CHUA: Thank you, Becky I think we need to switch over to the next person. Thank you, again. (Audience applause)

BECKY (captioner, typed on the screen): (Thank you!)

Summarizing all of JEE’s guest editorials from Jan 2005 to Apr 2008

In an attempt to learn more about the history of engineering education research (EER), Nicole, Juan, Ruth, and I were looking through all of JEE’s guest editorials between January 2005 to April 2008. There were 14 in total. Here’s what I noticed.

  • All these articles contain a lot of personal thank-yous. There are people here — people who’ve known each other for a long time. (And I’ve met some of them, too — I was an engineering undergrad at the time most of these articles were written, studying in an environment at Olin heavily influenced by precisely these people, these papers, and this dialogue… but I didn’t know Sherra Kerns — the same cool, friendly “Doc” who let us ride her Segway around the building — was doing this!)
  • There’s a lot of reference to national studies — we’re seeing a primarily economic justification, with a “good workforce for AMERICA!” as the desired output. This makes sense, since federal funding makes up a large portion of EER’s budget.
  • Paradigm shift terminology being used everywhere, portraying EER’s transition from a dull past to a brighter future. Lots of “we are changing fast” verbiage and self-identification as an “emerging discipline.”
  • Centered around academia and efforts within faculty — no recognition of student, industry, etc. change efforts
  • Many calls for community and unity, couched in big-picture, grand-thinking language. I am suspicious that this is is not the whole story, since my experience tells me people who feel the need to make grand calls and claims for unity… aren’t unified. If you’re really unified, you can take all that for granted, and you talk about other things.

I also wrote up a (heavily opinionated) chronological summary of what we read (maybe I’ll be non-lazy enough to put in proper citations someday — though Nicole is likely to beat me to that):

January 2005: (Lohmann, 2005) takes the helm of the JEE, summarizing the publication’s history and giving thanks to many individual names. It’s clear that sea changes are taking place to raise journal quality; Lohmann details the introduction of review criteria, the writing of a mission, vision, and philosophy, and presents statistics on the improvement of article review rates — including, interestingly enough, a numerically-described increase in “review quality” to “2.1 out of 3.0″ and an average decision letter length of “2,200 words.” (p. 2)

(Felder, Sheppard, and Smith, 2005) justify the need for the JEE by citing national studies and reform efforts by ABET and the NSF — huge, country-wide organizations and initiatives. It describes a past that we are moving on from, a past that “focused almost exclusively on practice, structuring lecture courses and laboratories to teach the design and operation of engineering equipment and processes.” (p. 9)

(Shulman, 2005) speaks from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which has been studying professional education and comparing engineers to medical professionals, lawyers, clergy, and teachers — whose professional training is also undergoing revision to meet a changing world. Shulman speaks as if a quantum leap has just occurred: “we now expect engineering educators to apply the same standards of rigor and reflection to innovation and experimentation in education that we have traditionally applied to the work of engineering itself” (p. 11) — implying that it wasn’t expected before, I suppose. He ends with a plea for EER to both draw from and contribute back to education research.

April 2005: (Kerns, 2005) takes the tone of “let’s look forward to a new future together with hope” — an optimistic dawning of engineering education in response to national studies, and a call to stay together as a community as we walk into this new future. Jack Lohmann has just been appointed the editor of JEE.

July 2005: (Gabrielle, 2005) writes from the Engineering Education center of the NSF about globalization as a trend that will shape and influence engineering education.

October 2005: (Haghighi, 2005) starts with the same pointer to national studies of the need for a different sort of engineering workforce: global, flexible, able to keep pace with changes. It calls for EER on “fundamental” questions, such as “what is the nature of problem identification, formulation and solution?” and “How do you nurture critical thinking, innovation, and ingenuity?” (p. 351) It’s clear this is a “new discipline for a new community of scholars,” as a section header on p. 351 proclaims. We are shifting; we are on the verge of a transformation, and we must stay together and communicate with one another. JEE is described as a venue for communications, and Purdue’s new ENE program as “a new and ground-breaking graduate degree program… [with] future faculty members, educators, and professionals [who] will usher in increasingly innovative levels of science and scholarship in engineering education.” A quote from the end sums up the current attitudes well: “The time of quiet crisis in engineering education is giving way to an intentional and visible paradigm shift in engineering attributes and outcomes, foundational research, and educational pedagogy. Our engineering education community must now orchestrate… to generate the ultimate product: future engineers prepared to lead and participate in the emerging global economy.” (p. 352)

January 2006: (Fortenberry, 2006) also quotes national studies and the need to adapt engineering education to be centered on the human needs of a diverse population. Fortenberry encourages and proposes a framework for building and coordninating community around large-scale EER efforts; CAEE is mentioned as “one of a constellation of organizations working to enhance the quality of the engineering workforce” (p. 4). It’ll be interesting to see how those compare to the later JEE paper that sets what we now think of as “the EER areas.”:

  • The psychology of learning.
  • The physiology of learning.
  • The sociology of learning.
  • The finances of learning.
  • Management and accountability structures.

April 2006: (Streveler & Smith, 2006) write about “conducting rigorous research in engineering education,” based on their RREE workshops for engineering educators looking to shift to education research. We see a description of the “old way” of small-scale practitioner research that wasn’t linked to learning theory, the desire to move to a “new way” of more “rigorous” and “big picture” research, and the recognition that retraining and retooling is needed for this to occur. The term “paradigm shift” is once again used. (p. 104) (Edit for post-discussion note: Ruth pointed out, via Nicole, that this paper and Ruth/Karl’s work introduced the word “rigor” as a key word in engineering education discourse. Previously, the dialogue was calling for a “systematic” approach to research — they started the trend of also calling for a “rigorous” one).

July 2006: (Wormley, 2006) echoes the “national studies have found a need for reinventing engineering education” theme, with a call to action focused on preparing engineers for global innovation.

October 2006: (Radcliffe, 2006) brings up Boyer’s “Scholarship Revisited” (1990) and his 4 concepts of scholarship: discovery, integration, teaching, and application. It also echoes the (by-now) familiar call of “let’s develop innovative engineers,” but more explicitly describes the mindset of “technical rationality” as what we are moving forward from.

We can compare Fortenberry’s January 2006 proposal to the CSEE’s 5-point EER agenda, written in a separate (and authorless) “special report” section and referred-to by Radcliffe:

  • Engineering Thinking, Knowledge, and Competencies.
  • Socially-Relevant Engineering
  • Learning to Engineer
  • Engineering Education Pedagogies
  • Engineering Assessment Methodologies

January 2007: (Bransford, 2007) deals entirely with adaptation to rapid change. The world is changing quickly, and we need to learn to adapt to it in order to be innovative (a positive thing). It’s not only an individual’s job to make themselves innovative; this can be helped or hindered by their environment, and adaptability/innovation have ripple-out effects. Therefore, engineering educators must design adaptive environments so engineers can design adaptive societies.

April 2007: (Katehi & Ross, 2007) It’s not just about content, it’s about developing knowledge and creativity “with the support of intricate and robust intellectual and social communities.” (p. 89) Let’s apply this freedom of imagination to experimenting with our curricula.

April 2008: (Haghighi et. al., 2008) starts by describing EER as combining “deep knowledge of engineering with similarly deep knowledge of learning and pedagogy” which is “more than simply a ‘marriage’” of the two disciplines (p. 119). It takes the tone of being a little ways into the start of history. After an era of marginalized, isolated, and unsupported faculty members, a fledgling community is now taking wing with the help of funding and award recognition. Now, the authors claim, is the time to extend our influence to “transform our disciplinary culture” (p. 120) and impact the actual education of engineers.

How I use Zotero to take research reading notes

Here’s how I take notes for my classes/research. I currently use Zotero, an open source citation manager.

The two images below show screenshots from my actual setup. The blog post text is the same as the text in the images (click to enlarge), but I’m writing it up here for screenreader accessibility and web searchability.

The first image shows how I take notes on actual books.


Generally, I take my notes in page order — this is easy because I read fast during my first pass, and underline/highlight/page-marker the sections I want to read more deeply and take notes on later; then it’s just a matter of going through my page markers in front of my computer.

(The first screenshot shows the Zotero interface with my notes for Karen Barad’s book “Meeting the universe halfway.” I’ll first list my annotations here, then list the notes that they refer to.)


Q [pagenumber]: a verbatim quote from the reading. For instance:

Q 139-40: A verbatim quote from page 139-40 of this book.

P [pagenumber]: a paraphrase of what the reading says

N [pagenumber]: my own thoughts on the reading. If the pagenumber is “^”, that means it’s a note on the item directly above it (for instance, the note below the verbatim quote from page 6 refers to my thoughts on that verbatim quote).

An excerpt of my actual notes on this book

N: originally got this book for a paper on objectivity for Dr. Lather

N: Agential realism (related to objectivity) is a big idea in this book

Q ix: (from the Preface) The past is never finished. it cannot be wrapped up like a package, or a scrapbook, or an acknowledgement; we never leave it and it never leaves us behind.

N: I love the preface — it’s reflexive, unwinding itself and reflecting the subject matter (intra-action) the book is about. It also thanks Bohr, because “some of the greatest debts we have are to those who live in different times and spaces” and so forth.

Q 6: …no definitive answers can be given in the absence of the specification of a particular interpretation.

N^: Not specifically about intra-action or anything, but a useful phrase/reminder in general.

Q 133: A performative understanding of discursive practices challenges the representationalist belief in the power of words to represent preexisting things. Unlike representationalism, which positions us above or outside the world we allegedly merely reflect on, a performative account insists on understanding thinking, observing, and theorizing as practices of engagement with, and as part of, the world in which we have our being.

Q 133: Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real… performativity is properly understood as a contestation of the unexamined habits of mind that grant language and other forms of representation more power in determining our ontologies than they deserve.

P 139: Phenomena are the primary ontological unit, not independent objects. They are the ontological entanglement of intra-acting “agencies.”

P 139-140: Intra-actions (in contrast to interaction) give meaning to boundaries and properties; they include the surrounding environment, and effect “an agential cut between ‘subject’ and ‘object’.” They “enact agential separability – the condition of exteriority-within-phenomena,” and provide the possibility for objectivity in the “absence of exteriority between observer and observed.” Agential cuts also enact causality. Apparatuses are thus not just instruments of observation, but boundary-drawers that reconfigure the world.

Q 142: [Bohr] emphasizes that the cut delineating the object from the agencies of observation is enacted rather than inherent.

I will frequently use my notes and quotes from reading for class/research-group prep, specifically for making instant discussion questions. For instance, the note below “Q ix” could turn into “How does the writing structure of the preface parallel the topic of intra-action that Barad is writing about?” (This is off the top of my head. It’s not the greatest discussion question ever, but you get the idea.)

The second image shows how I use tags in Zotero:



I have sometimes shared my Zotero libraries with groups (research groups and course classmates) in the past. You don’t have to do this, and I’ve gotten limited utility from doing it (nobody ever helps me with my notes), but it’s an option — I’ve found it most helpful when multiple people are contributing to a literature review, and take notes in the shared Zotero library. You can create group libraries by logging in at

If I get (or use) a reading for class, I make a tag for the class (and mark the document with the appropriate tag: the screenshot points to Zotero’s tag interface). In this case, this tag (2013-cultural-lather) was [for] a 2013 Cultural Studies class with Dr. Lather.

If I am using a reading for the reading for a specific project, I’ll create a tag for that project as well so I can keep track of resources specifically for that project. (The screenshot points to a tag called “prelimdoc.”) This also helps me in later searches when I go “hm… there was a good reference I used in this paper… what was that?”

Near-peer advice from 1st-time engineering education researchers

For future engineering education / qualitative research methods students of mine, here’s some quick feedback from the 1st-year Purdue ENE PhD students who’ve just presented their first research projects. (“What would you tell next year’s students?”)

  1. Data collection takes longer than you think.
  2. Frustration is educational, and the experience has been deliberately designed so you’ll experience it.
  3. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

I think #2 will be particularly relevant to when I teach my methods courses. It’s not frustration for the sake of making you frustrated, folks. It’s frustration that’s part of this fumbling-around-in-the-unknown that research is, and part of learning how to be a researcher is learning how to sensitize yourself to — and deal healthily with — frustration.

(New comic): Mastery (Dreyfus model of skill acquisition) on one page

The Dreyfus brothers developed their model of skill acquisition for the US Military in the 80′s. It describes mastery as the process of increasing one’s ability to independently improvise through a complex environment. Later, Crismond and Adams pointed out that “mastery” (according to this scale) is an unrealistic expectation for a semester-level course, or even a senior undergraduate — 4 years of college will not make someone an expert in their field. “Competence” is a more reasonable level to strive for — basic proficiency that sets a new graduate up to continue learning as a junior practitioner in the working world.

As with the Self-Authorship comic, this was produced for the Purdue Polytechnic Institute (PPI) and is open-licensed and available online (as you can see), so yes — feel free to share this with your friends however you would like.

Mastery (Dreyfus model of skill acquisition on one page)