Summary of FYEE 2015

I recently attended the First-Year Engineering Education Conference in Roanoke, VA (FYEE). I decided to go so I could immerse myself in the engineering education community for both inspiration and preparation for my new lecturer position at UC Davis. The conference was also very close to my hometown so I got to visit my family for a few days too. I was worried that the conference may not be any good because I heard about it from a random email solicitation, but it ended up being worth the trip out. This post summarizes my notes on the conference.

The conference is an independent small (~200 attendees) meeting that focuses specifically on the first year experience of engineering students. The attendees were mostly faculty, advising staff, and folks from the few engineering education departments that exist. The demographics of the attendees was mind blowing for an engineering conference. There may have been more women than men and there were many other minority groups that were strongly represented. The conference had two keynotes, several half day workshops, various talks, and some tours of Virginia Tech's facilities.

The first keynote was from Miray Pereira, a program manager from DuPont. In my opinion, her keynote wasn't that noteworthy but there were a few nuggets hidden in her weird flowchart slides. She gave us some perspective on what skills an attributes a big corporation would like to see in new engineering hires. She pointed out that STEM hires are very poor at working in teams and communicating compared to non-STEM hires. She also said that her engineers were more focused on activity that impact. She has trouble getting her engineers to accept a "No" as an invitation to improve their work and often sees young engineers too focused on having their idea win than on collaboratively developing the best idea for the company.

The second keynote was from a young professor at ASU, Shawn Jordan. Shawn has an engineering education degree and has some grants that focus on connecting the maker movement and engineering education. His talk was quite inspirational and ultimately had the audience try to define the terms "maker" and "engineer", seeing if there were commonalities and differences. I was surprised that some of the professors at my table didn't even know what the maker movement was. I'd wrongly assumed that all engineers would have probably heard of it. Shawn showed that many makers don't identify as engineers, and that engineering is essentially a non-hip profession/activity. But he thinks that we should be figuring out how to persuade "makers" into becoming engineers. Notes from his talk:

  • I-Corp for learning
  • RED Grant
  • "failure is a badge of honor in the maker community"
  • We need to bring the kind of sharing makers have into the engineering community.
  • IP prohibits sharing (makers share, companies hide)
  • Grade on process instead of the product.
  • Laser cutting cardboard is much more efficient than having students 3D printing prototypes.

There were other folks at the conference thinking about the maker movement. Virginia Tech has a maker space for their freshman to hang out in and they also have a maker space in an honors dormitory. The first one is setup so that all 1800 freshman engineers come through for a ~4 hr session at creating some things with 3D printers, engravers, etc. It was still quite the infant though and our tour guides were undergraduates that were focused on telling us about the specific machines instead of how the educational program worked.

I participated in two workshops, one on coaching and another on assessment. Both of the workshops were really good. First of all, it was nice being taught by engineering teachers that think hard about good teaching. Both workshops did pretty good at active learning and I came away with many new things. The coaching workshop by Jennifor Groh showed how coaching can be used to help your students get through tough issues. We were able to practice asking powerful questions that encouraged the students to self-discover their path forward and how to be held accountable for the goals they set for themselves. The assessment workshop had us brainstorming all kinds of assessment methods and working through the design of some specific assessments for real situations. The main design issues were:

  • setting learning objectives, course context, and who you are trying to convince with the evidence
  • the actual learning experience
  • the assessment implementation plan
  • how the assessment data will be used

An aside, during that workshop I heard a lot of high praise for the CATME software for teamwork assessment.

I also met some interesting people. I met a woman from UCI that runs a first year engineering course there. She has the students construct a quadcopter from scratch that has to do various tasks like carry a specific payload. I also had long conversations with the coordinators of the minority programs at Purdue and UT Austin.

I was disappointed in the scientific rigor of many of the talks. The good scientists could run a pairwise T-test or maybe an ANOVA and the poor ones didn't have any science at all. One woman said to me "the last talk was all about simulation, you didn't miss anything". That's in the eye of the beholder I suppose. One of the talks I went to was appalling and I can't believe the author even got accepted. He asked a single women student why she choose engineering and then went on to make bold claims about why women choose engineering and what we should do to get more women engineers. He might as well have been a used car salesman.

I went to quite a few of the talks on minorities in engineering. Barring the previously mentioned one, all were enlightening in different ways. I learned how Chinese and Indian students are likely to fit best in hierarchical student/professor relationships, which explains why I have more trouble getting my Indian GSoC students to work as equals. I also learned that there is a strong correlation between the number of women in the medicine and law TV shows of the 80s/90s to the number of women doctors and lawyers of today. We need a women MacGyver!

I also watched several talks on flipping the classroom. It seemed to me that many people are interested in trying flipped or "blended" models but that most of the speakers were not able to show significant improvements in learning from their assessments. But most felt that the key was getting students to learn to learn and for them to "do" to learn, which I agree with and the research supports. The chair of the session said "we need to teach students like the residence halls feed them" (i.e. with many choices of the type of learning you want to do).

Lastly, I watched one talk on a "faculty in residence" program and Boise State. I'd never heard of such a thing, but this prof lived in the dorms with a cohort of freshman (along with his wife and child). He was a normal prof but spent extra time leading extracurricular activities with the students and helping them with their homework and projects. He was very focused on building a strong community among the students and giving them a supportive around-the-clock environment. I was very impressed by the program. He said that all the colleges had one and it'd been going on for a long time.

I have some criticisms and suggestions for improvement of the conference. The conference booklet was poorly organized and it was very difficult to arrange which talks to attend in the different sessions. All they needed to do was to make a full table of the talks that had all the talks at any given time across a row, broken up by sessions in columns. There were also too many simultaneous tracks. I'd much rather have a single track conference that does one or more of these:

  • Utilized lightning talks. Most people don't need a full 20 minutes to blab about their stuff. We could get way more information with 5 minute lightning talks.
  • Be more selective in the talks. Many of the talks were marginal at best.
  • Video the talks and post them online so we can watch the ones we missed.

Also, the circular tables were bad for the talks good for the workshops. And finally, my pet peeve, was that there were no vegetarian items at the second lunch even though dietary needs were collected at registration.

Overall the conference was worth attending and I came home with a head full of ideas and some new connections around the country. I'm not sure I'll get to work with freshman engineering at first in my new job but I hope to as time goes on.