Friday, December 11, 2009

Blog (David's) [The Best Of]

Writing reflections was an altogether new experience for me. The combined effects of being someone who’s never kept journals along with my math- and science-heavy coursework left me, as far as I can tell, one of the least experienced writers in the class.

This is apparent in one of my first posts, titled “Reflection 2”. I was clearly struggling with writing style: many of my sentences are choppy and poorly worded, and I frequently interrupt myself with parenthetical asides. The all-caps “headers” seemed like a good idea at the time, but don’t really make sense in the flow of the narrative. They seem to divide the text too much, hurting the overall cohesiveness. Despite the many problems with this reflection, I chose it because I see some positive traits in it. The piece was successful, albeit marginally so, in combining something from my experience with Gawande’s text. (My argument was that independent musical artists used Gawande’s idea of ‘trust’ to for a more effective ‘group’ with their customers, something the RIAA failed to do.) Additionally, the awkward word choices and sentence structures are sometimes lucky enough to appear creative, which at least help the piece stay interesting to the reader.

My comfort with writing reflections increased with time, as can be seen in a reflection from the second three weeks titled “5”. In this piece I discussed my favorite college course, “Mythology of Greece and Rome”. This writing was clearly an improvement over my previous work: it had only a few of the awkward sentence missteps of earlier posts, (the most noticeable being “Daedalus did, so Queen Minos did, allowing Zeus to,”) and the flow of the narrative was uninterrupted and well-organized. Negative aspects, of course, are still apparent in this reflection. Neither the class discussion nor any of the class text is referenced, which would have helped give this reflection more of a point and allow it to fit with all the other reflections. Also, while the piece was fun to write, it didn’t present any real argument answering the prompt.

For my last post in October, I wrote a reflection linking other students’ ideas in “Is Diversity Good?” At this point, I can say that I was perfectly comfortable with my writing style. There are no awkward breaks, no noticeable missteps that take the reader’s attention away from the writing. Additionally, the fusion of Kim’s and Joe’s ideas with my own made this piece a lot more colorful. I’d say this post was easily one of my most interesting, as it involved many different views of the same topic of diversity within working groups. While the post is lacking the “storyline” of some of my earlier posts, I think it makes up for it in a cohesive argument.

My favorite post, the one I consider best, is my argument against the rigid guidelines of graduation requirements: “For Flexibility”. I like this piece for three main reasons: the argument it presents is perfectly cohesive (more so than any other one of my posts,) there are good references to both class discussion and the text, and the links used seem to help clarify the piece even more. Of course, the piece isn’t perfect: my defense against counterarguments could have been better developed. All in all, though, I think this piece stands as my best for the semester.

The weekly required writing was illuminating for me. I was forced to push through my initial inability to convey meaning effectively through text. I found that an easy way to break through writer’s block is to simply tell a story from personal experience (whether it is perfectly related to your subject or not.) As I grew more comfortable writing, I found that reading other writing (be it other students’ blogs, or outside articles,) helped solidify my own ideas and help me put them down in words.

I have a feeling I will continue writing, if only to keep practiced on the progress I have made so far. I doubt I will continue this blog in its current form, but now that I have gained confidence in making reasonable and cohesive arguments, I think it will be easier for me to continue writing on a regular basis.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Thought on Senge's View of Disengagement

When in class the Professor asked us to consider our disengagement dilemma in Senge’s terms, a thought emerged: disengagement is the lack of personal mastery. In this case, I’m using “personal mastery” to mean the act of constantly striving towards bettering oneself, (the “journey”.) Senge portrays personal mastery in its corporate incarnation. He explains that personal mastery means digging deeper into one’s work, constantly striving to learn more and become more skillful. Such a description can be easily translated to the classroom: a student disengages when they apply just as much effort as is necessary, spending no time or effort in “digging”.

Personal mastery, Senge argues, doesn’t come easily. It takes patience, and clarity of vision. Most importantly, it seems to me, personal mastery comes from the understanding that one will never stop learning. There will never be a person who knows everything, and keeping an open mind to new ideas and changing circumstances is integral in pursuing personal mastery.

In her latest post, Alessandra mentions a stubborn ex-team member who she calls Kurt. Kurt is asked to think of ways that he can involve his community in achieving a visionary goal – in his case, eliminating disasters caused by engineering mistakes. He refused, however, to consider anything outside of his comfort zone, arguing that he could solve the problems by researching solo. It took the rest of the team members’ arguments to show Kurt that his stubbornness was counter-productive to his goal.

While the Kurt Situation might not immediately parallel the obstacles to personal mastery, I think his stubbornness illustrates a common human trait that keeps many from taking on “the journey”. Kurt, like many people, couldn’t see any problem with his solution: he could solve the problem fine by himself, he thought. He considered himself proficient enough to solve his goal without the immediate help of his peers.

This thought is counterproductive. With such a huge goal as solving engineering mistakes, there isn’t a person on Earth who is capable of solving it alone. Kurt is not seeking personal mastery as long as he is considering the fact that he always has room to learn, and other people will always have something to teach him.

Disengagement may involve a similar symptom. When I think back to the classes I was most disengaged in, I am reminded most of a Fusion Science course I took. This class, despite being completely within the topic boundary of my major and interest, was nearly impossible for me to become engaged in. I was the classic disengaged student: I put no more effort into the class than was necessary to get an A.

This disengagement wasn’t because the material was far above my head, and it wasn’t because the teacher was especially boring. I think I was uninterested mostly because I felt like I knew most of the course’s material already. Because my focus is Plasma and Fusion, I had taken courses before (and went on to take classes after) that repeated much of the same material. This course, however, offered the least amount of “new” information. I couldn’t help but zone out in class.

This disengagement, then, is my fault. I refused to pursue personal mastery in the course because, like Kurt, I felt like I had nothing to learn. Had I worked harder at finding new and interesting information from the subject matter, I may have eliminated my disengagement.

My point here is that, in an effort, to eliminate disengagement in a given course, the designer would be best of considering this human characteristic. With opportunities for a student who already knows much of the information to find something new and interesting, disengagement might become less of a problem.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Upperclassmen as Wikipedia

Dave’s post on the subject of freshman/upperclassman relations mentions a number of means by which underclassmen in our University can reach upperclassmen. I just so happens that, in all of my time here as an underclassman, I wasn’t involved in any of Dave’s recommendations. I came to the university without a major, and never took an introductory class. My Resident Advisor (RA) was decidedly unhelpful, being a particularly unsocial student who spent most of his time at the gym. I was never involved in a Registered Student Organization (RSO) for more than a week.

I assert, however, that some contact with upperclassmen, especially in the first year months of college, is necessary for an underclassman to be successful. My contact came when I took a job as an undergraduate research assistant at the Nuclear Radiations Laboratory, a lab on campus.

Admittedly, I didn’t come to the lab with upperclassmen dialogue in mind. I was expecting nothing more than research experience from the job. The hierarchy of the lab, however, put me in constant contact with upperclassmen also working as undergraduate workers. Superficially, this relationship was purely job-based: they explained the (relatively simple) tasks I was to perform, and I came to them if I had simple questions about the work. This, of course, was not the extent of our communication. Since I was constantly around my upperclassmen coworkers, I had numerous chances to ask questions on any topic, be it how to switch my major, or which professors I should seek out as teachers, or whether Chipotle burritos were worth the extra cost of their Qdoba counterparts. I almost always got immediate and useful information this way. (College of Engineering Deans, Professor Ruzic, absolutely yes.)

These upperclassmen contacts were invaluable my freshman year. The way I see it, a student can only be so successful seeking information from professors, advisors, etc. Having an older student to answer questions is much more effective. This effect is comparable to one of the points in our class discussion on Wikipedia. One of the reasons I believe the open-source online encyclopedia is so popular (I wanted to say “successful” here, but that’s a whole different discussion) is its transient behavior. Wikipedia is constantly being updated (as evidenced by its Recent Changes log.) Although this may be seen as a source of its potentially inaccurate information, it also allows the encyclopedia to keep up with current events much more rapidly than a more “reputable” encyclopedia can. As an example, this Wikipedia article includes information about Iran’s nuclear program, including the minor developments that happened this week. On the other hand, Encyclopedia Britannica offers only this stagnant list of articles with the same subject matter, none updated nearly as lately as Wikipedia.

The parallel isn’t perfect, but my point is that there are some situations where Wikipedia really is the most helpful, and there are some questions that are most helpfully answered by older students. Professors and other University faculty/staff sometimes have obstacles to giving helpful information:

-they didn’t go to the U of I as an undergraduate and thus don’t have the essential experience,

-they can’t “bad-talk” other professors or staff (which students are more than willing to do)

-they may worry about losing their job by being too candid

Be it through one of Dave’s processes, through an on-campus job, or some other way, I would recommend any freshman to seek out an upperclassman as an information resource.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Klingon Birth Rates and Successful Exams

The prompt on learning immediately brought to my mind the Neutron Diffusion course I mentioned early in the class. I brought up then, and want to bring up again, the unique final the professor designed for this course.

The course’s material dealt mostly with understanding and using mathematical equations to approximate the position and dynamics of neutrons (tiny neutrally-charged particles) as they move about a nuclear reactor. Because neutrons are so small and move so quickly, they don’t always obey the “classical” laws of physics that relatively large and slow things do. Through the use of various formulas and mathematical approximations, the general behavior of neutrons can be modeled.

(It should be noted that the value of this course was immediately verified. Not only did the concepts introduced in this class appear in almost all of the next semester’s courses within the same department, countless graduates confirmed that neutron-modeling techniques are commonly utilized in actual industry settings.)

The final exam was, as I said in class, of genius design. The exam had one problem, and the professor allowed the entire three-hour period to solve it (although few students stayed past the first hour.) The problem asked the students to model the population of a planet of Klingon people through use of neutron-diffusion equations. The students were to account for Klingon births (corresponding to neutron multiplication,) deaths (neutron absorption,) growth into adulthood (neutron scattering / energy diffusion,) among a number of other aspects. Additionally, and in my mind most importantly, the problem gave directions to include modeling for “any other aspects of Klingon life you can imagine.”

In the class discussion where I brought up this exam, I explained that I was impacted most by the creative aspect of the exam: while it obviously still tested our skill with neutron diffusion equations, the addition of an interesting theme and the prompt to use our imaginations made the exam exciting and fun.

I do not see the creativity of the exam, however, as what makes it successful in measuring the amount of the students’ learning. It was the fact that the exam tested “on-your-feet” skills, instead of dry knowledge, that sets this exam above many of the other’s I’ve taken.

It’s well-known among students that nearly all of the facts and knowledge you “cram” in your brain before the exam are gone by the end of finals. I think this is the mark of unsuccessful exams. If the information has nowhere to be used, it seems to quickly be forgotten. The kind of exams like the one in my neutron diffusion class, however, do not seem to have this fate.

To answer the prompt: successful learning in a course can be characterized by the ability to do something or think about something in a new way. With this in mind, I suppose it could be said that yes, all good learning comes with a kind of personal transformation. Further, evidence of this learning is measurable through exams that require the student to test their new skill or way of thinking. Instead of regurgitating cold facts, a successful learner can use what they’ve learned to analyze something, model something, do something…

I believe that all courses, with a little work, could utilize “on-your-feet” exams, which, if the course successfully presented its content, and the students successfully learned, would verify successful learning.

Friday, November 6, 2009

For Flexibility

My gut reaction is to argue for the ability to drop classes. I knew from the moment I read the prompt that this would be my stance, and I know why. There have been numerous times throughout my college career that I have been confused why a given class would be required for my major. Currently, I am in a required Physics course in which I can see no relevance to what I want to do with my life. This alone isn’t a reason to allow this course to be dropped, as it could be that my entire major doesn’t fit with my life plans. This isn’t the case, however: these courses also have seemingly no relevance to the discipline of my major, Nuclear Engineering, at all.

In his post on this subject, Tyler brings up a good point: the people who decide which classes are required for our majors are the experts in our field, and so it would be a mistake to think we know any better. I agree with this idea: our department heads should have the final say on what coursework constitutes successful completion of a degree. I’m less supportive, however, of the idea of a “set-in-stone” course sequence.

During one of our class discussions on “Declining by Degrees”, I remember the idea of the decreasing worth of a Bachelor’s Degree being brought up. (I’m interested to see if this topic is breached at all in the movie.) In short, the argument is that a bachelor’s degree twenty (fifty? I’m not exactly sure of the time frame here) years ago was a guaranteed ticket to the job your major trained you for, but the same degree today is just a stepping stone towards a career. I believe it. More than one of my engineering professors have framed the bachelor’s degree as a test of “basic training”; to achieve further success in the engineering discipline, post-graduate education is extremely recommended, if not required.

What, then, is the final goal of earning an engineering bachelor’s degree? With my professors’ argument in mind, I would have to say that it is accumulating the basic engineering skills required for post-graduate education or training. This is a pretty concrete goal, at least for an engineering degree, because there exist nationally-accepted requirements for officially earning the “Engineer” title for all of the major engineering disciplines and many of the secondary ones (including Nuclear). The National Academy of Engineering is the governing body of these guidelines, and one only needs to take a Professional Engineering Exam to prove one’s aptitude and earn an engineering license.

What if the department heads, instead of assigning a sequence of courses required for graduation, made a list of knowledge and skills that a student must accrue to earn their degree? The list would not be a short one: I imagine it encompassing everything earning a degree by the current system involves. The difference, however, comes from the fact that this new system allows any course that teaches a skill or topic of knowledge that is on the list to count towards graduation.

Obviously, many items on the list would be pretty narrow, and couldn’t be fulfilled by more than one specific course. For instance, “Student Knows How to Solve Differential Equations” could probably only be achieved by a Differential Equations course. I’m confident, however, that some of the requirements are more general and could be fulfilled by a number of courses: this is why “professional electives” exist. In my major, at least, there is a required sub-set of courses that can be chosen among many options. My physics class is one of these courses, and the only “list item” I can think of that these courses would fulfill is “student has advanced knowledge in one topic related to scientific research.” Clearly, an enormous number of classes could fit this description.

Additionally, a publication of a requirement list would be sound with Drucker’s ideas on effective individual work, specifically, knowing one’s goals and constantly working towards them. A student who has daily access to the list of skills he or she knows must be accrued by graduation can constantly work to better themselves in these areas. The current “required sequence” style of educations seems to emphasize a different goal: good grades in each of the individual classes.

Obviously, I am proposing a change that would require the entire college (or university) to alter almost every aspect of its existence. For instance, courses university-wide would have to have their contents and “list items” determined. This is an enormous task, and a lot of time and money would have to be available to achieve what I have in mind.

I’m confident, however, that a student who knows what he or she is working towards and has more choice in the details of how to reach those goals (e.g., choice of classes) is a happier and more effective student.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Is Diversity Good?

I her reflection on one of our class sessions, Kim presents the thoughts of two semi-fictitious students surrounding another class-member’s statement of confusion with the direction of discussion. (That was you, right, Kim?) I say “semi-ficticious” because, while neither Rebecca nor Felicity actually exist, I’m confident their thought processes are common enough that one could say our class holds many Rebeccas and Felicitys.

Kim presents the two girls as having very dissimilar reactions to the unnamed student’s outburst. This third student questions whether it is useful to continue discussing the class project’s minor details before its main goal is specified. Rebecca is decidedly resistant to halting the discussion right away, arguing that the minor details will be a deciding factor in the general direction of the goal. Felicity sides with the third student, seeing it as more useful to start working on the project and work out the kinks along the way, as the deadline is approaching quickly. In the end, Felicity “wins,” as the class breaks up into smaller groups and starts tackling the logistics of starting the group project.

The discord between Rebecca and Felicity is also semi-fictitious, being imaginary in this case but real in almost any group-project setting. Nearly every time a diverse group of people is put together to accomplish a goal, at least two of the group members are in disagreement. This is unavoidable. There will always be both Rebeccas and Felicitys, it’s what diversity is all about.

As an instructor of an engineering introductory course, “Diversity” was one of the subjects I had to present to my class of freshmen. The instructions I was given were fairly vague; it was assumed that I knew what “Diversity” was and why it is always desirable. When it came to teaching the class, however, I found myself at a loss. I couldn’t find a logical way to argue that diversity is always better. From an objective standpoint, doesn’t diversity seem like a negative thing when, say, a group of people with extremely differing viewpoints can’t find common ground? Couldn’t this, for instance, ruin the effectiveness of a group project?

I was forced to think of a reason why diversity is better, even in the case of a group of people having absolutely nothing in common, capable only of arguing. The engineering course guidelines offered the cookie-cutter answer of, “diversity teaches people to open their minds to new thoughts and experiences.” Yes, yes. I think everyone has heard a version of this line at some point. It may be true, but I was looking for something more compelling, more relevant.

Perhaps I could argue that, despite the dissonance, diversity might help to increase the ability of the group. For instance, the motivation of the group as a whole might be impacted by the fact that the group members have starkly different personalities.

Joe had good way of phrasing the right way to increase motivation. In his post about group alignment, he remembers a speaker relating the motivation a person should feel towards prayer to the draw caused by a Krispy Kreme “Hot Now!” sign. Although Joe calls it corny, I consider the analogy perfect: motivation is caused by an obvious, loud attractiveness. So how can diversity make a group objective “Hot Now”?

In the case of Rebecca and Felicity, both students have clearly different interests. Although it can’t be said to be absolutely true, a person’s interests generally line up with their skills; they like same things that they are good at. (I don’t want to impose any cause or effect in this case: like we discussed in one of our early classes, it’s unclear whether interest breeds skill because of increased practice or skill breeds interest because of the joy of doing something well.) The same mentality could be raised to the group: a group most likes what it is doing when it is doing it well. If Rebecca and Felicity are both allowed to pursue their particular interests in the group, the overall happiness of the group is raised. The more diverse the group, the more the total amount of different problems it can accomplish, and the happier it becomes.

Of course, this isn’t by any stretch a perfectly logical argument. Surely, the arguments born from the diversity of the group still stand as obstacles towards a happy (and effective) group. This reflection should be taken as more of an advocation for diversity, which I see as an opportunity to make a group “Hot Now”.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Swimming In The Internet

The world wide web is the ocean and “Designing for Effective Change” is a tiny gulf no one has heard of.

Let me start again. I don’t think our class reflections would be any different if, say, they were posted on a private compass page where only we could read them. I agree, Joe, anyone wielding the internet could read this. I really don’t think anyone outside our class is. The world wide web offers the chance for our written thoughts to be internationally public, but I’d say this facet isn’t being utilized here.

Still, the simple fact of having our reflections online, international or not, may have an effect on how we face our job of writing.

The world wide web, being a source of near-instantaneous, often accurate information, makes fact-checking an almost mindless exercise. This fact is the writer’s boon as it offers quick and easy access to correct information (I just looked up “boon” to make sure I was using it correctly,) and his bane as it forces him to dissect his arguments more thoroughly, anticipating an audience capable of the same quick and easy access (I changed “mostly accurate” to “often accurate,” not wanting to tangle with Wikipedia’s shaky status as a source of correct information.)

(Actually, that latter one is probably also a boon. Thorough argument dissection should produce more accurate writing.)

Hyperlinks are another advantage of online writing. I haven’t used any at this point, but I can see that many students have introduced links to other websites within the text of their reflections. Again, this offers both b-words to the writer: his reader will have immediate access to information he deems pertinent to the writing, but he risks losing his reader altogether to another page before they have finished reading his work. In fact, I’d put distraction as the number one problem facing online writers.

The online nature of our classwork can be seen more as a “networking” situation: it facilitates sharing of reflections between the students of the class and allows for outside sources of information to be woven smoothly into our writing. To answer the “are we taking full advantage of our online capabilities,” I’d say yes. It’s true, we try more worldwide publicity, but what’s the point? I’d say these reflections of are the most use to our fellow classmates, and the only comments I care about are from people involved in the class. In this regard, putting our reflections in this small gulf off the main body of the internet ocean is completely beneficial to our course.