This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress, May 2015.
Much has been written about chemical engineering education, particularly what students should be taught to prepare them for a career as a chemical engineer. A major emphasis has been on identifying the knowledge and skills industrial employers expect their new hires to have. CEP has published several articles* on this topic recently, and many of you have shared your thoughts in letters to the editor. The discussions will continue, and we will continue to keep you apprised of AIChE’s activities in this area.
What to teach is only one term in the equation, though. How to teach the material is another. That was the subject of last year’s Institute Lecture. In his presentation at the 2014 AIChE Annual Meeting in November, Edward L. Cussler, Distinguished Institute Professor at the Univ. of Minnesota, explored how the revolution in electronics will affect undergraduate teaching. (His talk is reprinted in this month’s AIChE Journal, pp. 1472–1477, and a slightly modified version appears in this issue of CEP, pp. 23–26. You can also view a video of the presentation at www.aiche.org/academy/videos/conference-presentations/future-lecture.)
In a clever play on words, Cussler titled his Institute Lecture “The Future of the Lecture” — though his subject was not the lecture he was delivering at the moment, but rather the lecture format professors use to teach. He concluded that professors will continue to teach mostly through lectures, standing in front of a roomful of students, and use electronic media when it efficiently facilitates active learning. For example, an instructor could tape lectures of tricky or boring material, breaking it into small, five- to 20-minute chunks, that students could work through individually at their own pace. Class time could then be devoted to applying that material to real-world problems.
Cussler got the idea to tape lectures after taking several massive open online courses (MOOCs), in which recorded lectures by well-known professors at prestigious universities can be viewed by students from around the world. MOOCs have received much criticism — they lack accreditation; grading of assignments such as research papers and essays is challenging; attrition is high; and there is no direct faculty-student interaction. But they also offer some advantages — they are of high quality, have no formal prerequisites, and allow cooperation among a diverse group of students through online message boards and local study groups; and, they are free.
The MOOC could serve as a useful model for chemical engineering professors. Daphne Koller, a professor of computer science at Stanford Univ. and co-founder of the MOOC platform Coursera, explains in a TED talk some of the keys to making MOOC-type recorded lessons effective. “When you move away from the constraints of a physical classroom and design content explicitly for an online format, you can break away from the monolithic one-hour lecture. You can break up the material into short, modular units of eight to 12 minutes, each of which represents a coherent concept. Students can traverse this material in different ways, depending on their background, their skills, or their interests. Some students might benefit from a little bit of preparatory material that other students might already have. Other students might be interested in a particular enrichment topic that they want to pursue individually. This format allows students to follow a much more personalized curriculum.”
She points out that students need to practice the material they learn in order to really understand it, so course designers need to build in meaningful practice questions and provide students with feedback on those questions. “How do you grade the work of 100,000 students if you do not have 10,000 TAs?,” she asks. Some types of assignments, such as multiple-choice questions, can be graded by computer. Some MOOCs that involve analysis and writing employ peer grading, where students grade each other’s work. Koller cites a study in which Phillip Sadler and Eddie Good found that student-assigned grades were very well correlated with the teacher-assigned grades, and that self-grades (where the students grade their own work critically, assuming they are properly incentivized to not give themselves a perfect score) are even better correlated with the teacher’s grades.
Maybe MOOCs will play a role in the future of chemical engineering education.
* April 2014: “Editorial: Getting ChE Education Right,” p. 3, and “How Well Are We Preparing ChE Students for Industry?,” pp. 4–5, 14–15; June 2014: “Editorial: Getting ChE Education Right — Part 2,” p. 3, “A Broader Role for the Evolving Engineer,” p. 13, and “Educating Students to Become Engineers,” pp. 14–15; Nov. 2014: “ChE Education: How Times Are Changing,” p. 15.
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