Friday, September 7, 2007

This is now a course blog.

The AHS capstone ended well, by the way - everyone at my final presentation was wildly enthusiastic and wanted more textbooks like that, and now. The textbook project is currently on hold but might start up again in a few weeks during the Fall 2007 semester depending on whether one of the Olin NINJAs is willing to test-drive it with his/her students.

Anyway: this blog has been turned into a new project. Just because I'm no longer formally enrolled in an institution doesn't mean I can't take a class... however, as I've joined this one late, I've got two weeks' worth of assignments to make up by the end of this Sunday. Reading speed, don't fail me now.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The backlogged update

Lesson learned: I can't keep up many separate project logs at once, so I'm merging them all this afternoon into one "notebook" (read: blog) where all my projects will live, so I'll only have one place to type into. That having been said, some exciting things have happened.

  • Alex and I started TAing IES (Intro to Engineering Science) at Wellesley. It was a rocky start, and still is sort of bumping along because it's awkward running tutorials for a class you can't attend with a prof you don't know with students you've never met at a school you don't go to, but the insights I'm gathering from watching the non-engineering students learn this stuff are good; I need to start formalizing those observations soon.
  • I've got a focus for the chapter - Ohm's law. Holy cow do I have a lot of stuff on Ohm's law.
  • My contextual report is so overdue. The reason for this is a combination of perfectionism and "ooh that's shiny"-ism. (And "I'm kinda pwned"-ism, but that's not really a reason; I've got enough space in my life to make time.) My horizons on this project keep expanding, and I can't encompass them perfectly, and I feel compelled not to turn in anything until I do, and that's really stupid. So tomorrow when I spend the afternoon at MIT, I'm just going to sit down and write the darn thing - because I have material to write it with, it doesn't have to be perfect - and I'm not going to get any credit for it because it's so late, but the blinkin' thing will be done. Done, I tell you.
  • The qualitative research methods course at MIT is incredibly helpful. I'm barely keeping my head above water and it seems like all these ideas are swimming around me and going over my head, but I'm learning a ton and it's starting to change the way I look at things, the way I analyze behaviors and reactions to teaching methods in the classroom, the amount of information I'm able to gain from informal feedback interviews. I'm going to start formalizing these feedback methods and using them as actual data for this project (formerly they were just done for fun, for my own edification).
  • I've gotten several requests from underclassmen who'd like to keep updated on the project, possibly get involved, help me test. This is good. Very good.
  • There is freakin' nothing on how to write textbooks. Aaaaaah. I keep reminding myself that's why I'm doing this in the first place. After spending about a month in paralysis (where by "paralysis" I mean "teaching a lot and getting many new ideas and materials and gathering notes but not doing anything with them" I went and talked to Sanjoy, he explained how he was writing his textbook, and I went "Oh. Ohhhhhhh. I can write this now."
  • The history of our current higher-education system (particularly with regards to textbooks) is really, really twisted. I want to try communicating this somehow. Not sure how to find the words yet.

I started out swimming in this weird new field (not really new to me, but new in that I hadn't "formally" swum in it before) and I think I'm at the point where I've soaked up enough of it to start spitting things back. I've been sopping stuff in and not sourcing much myself. Look for a surge in output starting... now.

Oh man - time log? I don' t know about a time log, I'm just breathing this stuff in almost 24/7 but don't put formal limits on stops and ends for it (it'll just bleed in to the rest of my life naturally, show up at dinner conversations, or I'll be working on something for this but then shift to anthro homework, or... they all kind of tie into each other) and I kind of like it that way. I think it's very safe to say I'm spending way more than 12 hours a week on things that are related to my AHS capstone. I don't think I can honestly say I'm spending 12 hours a week formally working on deliverables, because I've been doing this "soaking in" thing, and I need to start setting that time aside so I can let myself soak for the rest of the time, outside those 12 hours.

So let's say... we've got 3 hours in class every week, I'm going to spend at least 6 hours a week formally producing deliverables for the capstone, leaving 3+ (and there will be +++++) hours just to soak and enjoy myself in this new world.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

DJ on making ECS more accessible

Almost done with my proposal. In the meantime (and in the name of not getting bogged in paperwork - I've sworn that I'll work on my project at least twice as much as I work on things about my project like the contextual report and such) I'm trying to assemble an appropriate set of technologies for doing my capstone; at the very least I'll need a medium to write the textbook in (and so help me, it will not be Microsoft Word). There's not much out there for people trying to self-publish an open engineering textbook, though. Docbook, maybe? The circuit diagrams, graphs, and equations are the snafu.

DJ Gallagher (another Olin senior who's doing his capstone on hacker culture) looked at my proposal with its grandiose plans of "making the results of Olin's experimentation more accessible to other engineering institutions" and forced me to reexamine those goals more closely.

I think I see where you're going here, but I'm not sure I understand what you are suggesting. We can't add the human element to the text; and we can't throw in a copy of the proprietary software on which some of our content may depend. We can see to it that the m-files work in Octave as well as MATLAB, and we can try and transcribe some of the common oral wisdom of the course.

Yep. So I'm being a little grandiose. We can not and should not replicate the Olin experience at other schools (that would be a form of educational imperialism, and I think the identities of different schools are what make them wonderful). That's definitely not my intent. What I want to do is to provide enough context of such as to be useful to other profs and students at other schools to use the material in their context, in their own way.

I do think that the Olin cultural context within which these courses fall is sufficiently different from most other engineering schools (and sufficiently undocumented) that it's feasible people would look at our available course materials and go "what the frell is this? what class is this? What do I do with this stuff that is not fitting in my mental paradigm of how to teach engineering?" Heavily exaggerated, of course. I do believe that engineering educators could understand and use if if they tried, but I also know that they're busy people and that the lower the activation energy is, the more likely they'll be to try something.

So I want to try and bridge that gap. I don't think it's a terribly long gap, but someone has to take the time to do it. But of course the platform-accessibility issues DJ raised are going to be awfully important to address too. Pending approval of the original course instructors, I will be releasing all my nonconfidential (human subjects research containing name-identified personal anecdotes will stay confidential, of course) work in an open format and under an open license.

Spread the meme.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pitfalls to dodge

Was originally going to call this post "concerns for the semester," but that seemed rather boring. I've got two.

Avoiding the arrogance of assuming I "know" how to work in the field of education without formal training.

As an autodidact in the subject, I'm painfully aware that I can't assume my project will be grounded solidly in the scholarly conventions of that field. I've been reading as much as I can, talking to as many education researchers as I can find, and will try to keep this at the top of my mind throughout the semester; I'm an engineering student exploring the field of education, not yet a full-fledged education major. (I say "yet" because... well, there's always grad school.)

Not ballooning into a swiss army project.

As a polymath, I tend to take on jack-of-all-trades projects that blend my many interests, and this is no exception. Engineering, writing, graphic design and illustration, education, psychology, anthropology... this can go tripping across many boundary lines, but I need to remember that this is a humanities capstone and is based in the field of education. A million things can tie into it, but it's grounded in the field of education. (See concern #1 above for why I'm worried about that.) Better to focus on doing one small thing well than a thousand large things badly. This project is not my only chance to work in this field; it is a beginning, and I need to remember that (and forgive myself accordingly).

I'm psyched. This is what I've been waiting for for the last three years. (Gah, I'm counteracting #2 already.)

Soon I'll be meeting with Dee (our awesome librarian) about getting source materials for the research portion. As I wrote in an email to her,

I'm having a tough time finding things at the intersection of engineering and education - I can find education papers about engineering, and some research on engineering courses, but not much in the way of scholarly reflections by engineers themselves on engineering education and pedagogy.

I'm in an education-focused workbuddy trio with Char (how college advertising can attract women to engineering schools) and Simon (how non-engineers learn engineering in FIRST robotics). Need to revise my proposal tonight and meet with Gill and Brian soon since ECS is their baby (they are the professors who created the course), but otherwise things are good to go.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Jumping into the syllabus

Hi. I'm Mel, an Olin College student. This blog is a project notebook where I'll keep track of my AHS (arts, humanities, and social sciences) capstone project on engineering education throughout the semester. I'm a polymath who happens to be an undergrad in electrical and computer engineering and plans on being a university professor somewhat later on in life. Although I haven't had formal education coursework yet, I've been TAing for almost 5 years now, so my experience in the field is strongly skewed towards the practical rather than the theoretical; this is an imbalance I'll be dealing with throughout the semester.

In a nutshell, my project is examining the curriculum of Engineering of Compartment Systems, an intro-to-engineering course all frosh at Olin are required to take. Although the course has been offered 5 times in as many years, there is not yet a coherent collection of resources for it, meaning it will be difficult to share it with other students and universities. My current final deliverable is the beginnings of a "textbook-like" resource for the course (although it may not be a bound lesson-book in the traditional sense). The formal proposal will be fleshed out here as the course progresses.

We're supposed to come with a question about the syllabus for the first class on Wednesday, so here's mine. I've got three.

Learn to operate within disciplinary conventions.

Do these disciplines need to all be AHS? My capstone project cuts across the AHS/technical boundary, and I'm wary of pulling too much engineering into the mix, but I still want to be cognizant that I'm making things for use by engineers. I need to see how educational anthropologists have dealt with this dichotomy.

Is it okay to re-use prior work for assignments?

Since I took the AHS capstone prep course last year and have been preparing for this capstone project for almost a year and a half, the first two assignments for the course - a proposal and an annotated bibliography - are basically finished (although both could use revision) and earlier versions were already submitted for the prep course last spring. I hope it's still all right to use those.

What's the deal with human subjects if you don't think you have any... but aren't sure?

Finally, since I'm working on a project regarding a class that's being taught by professors, TA'd by upperclassmen, and taken by students, I'll have to look into the human subjects research ethics for this. Hopefully this won't be an issue at all, as I view the others involved as collaborators, not subjects, but we'll see what the professors say about this.

Ah, the sweet smell of a new semester, fraught with dreams and unburdened (as of yet) by a crushing workload. I'm looking forward to this.