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.