Why the Engineer's Survival Workshop did not work out

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I tried the class several semesters, adjusting it every time a bit to cover for the mistakes. In the end, I was too frustrated to continue. Students did not want to be in the class, and I did not want to force people to be in the class.

I was naive

Basically I thought that if I kept the lecture light and kept it fun and added short tidbits, students would learn better. For reasons explained below, the students did not really see it that way, which dropped my motivation for holding the class (or keeping students active in the class, or even attend the class). Maybe I was just not good enough.

The format was a bit loose

In all honesty, I was experimenting with some of the reverse classroom principles. That did not work. P&S courses like this one, only have a pass and fail option. Basically there is nothing that motivates the students to spend time outside the class for this lecture, and there are plenty of other lectures (with stricter passing criteria) that compete for the time of the students. So lighter lectures are the first ones to be sacrificed.

Students care mostly about grades/passing

It is sad, but a fact. Most of the students that visited the class were only 2-3 years removed form being in the real life, but they care more about a grade that is written on a transcript rather than skills and knowledge they have acquired. So more or less this course was seen as one of the annoying things that had to be done, and was easy to pass. I actually have less problems with easy to pass, as long as they came and also took something with them.

How we tried to change it

I ended up discussing this with Educational Development and Technology grooup of ETH Zurich. The first order of business was to change the description and the title from more buddy like to more professional. Emphasis on learning objectives and such. The text for enrolment was modified, attendance was made mandatory etc.. You can compare the difference below

Engineer's Survival Workshop

There are many little tricks that make life in engineering simpler. Many of these are not really taught directly in a class. Basic things like, how to best present your work, how to prepare tables, or even where and how to search for information on the Internet. Nearly everyone has some experience with these, and in this workshop we want to share the tricks that we know in an environment where we will also practice how to discuss and present. Every week we will have one topic, for example shell scripting or making scientific plots. I will start by giving the context to the theme and provide an introduction. Then we will spend some time to work in groups, working directly on the computers and in most weeks towards the end of the lecture we will have one or more participants prepare and present the result of these joint exercises.

This course is not where you sit around and listen to an old guy the whole time, the old guy (me) will still talk and guide you, but you will be expected to participate actively.

For the upcoming semester we will discuss the following themes: Introduction, Searching, Online collaborative tools, Shell scripting, Regular expressions, Graphics, Tables, Scientific Plots, Documentation, Presentation, Security, Project Management, Open Source Projects

No specific prior knowledge is required

Essential Skills for your Engineering Career

I have been involved in teaching electrical engineering for 20 years, and I have observed that many students lack the necessary experience in some key topics that are not directly covered in class. Based on my experience, I will use this lecture to cover topics and basic skills that I believe will help you in your engineering career.

This course has the following learning objectives:

  • Avoid making common mistakes when preparing figures, scientific plots and tables
  • Getting practice to present results efficiently and effectively (Two 5-minute presentations)
  • Learning basic UNIX commands and tricks to help you make better use of your computer
  • To communicate and collaborate in an effective manner when working in groups.

The lecture will be organized in three parts.

  1. Every week a new topic will be introduced and a short tutorial will be given.
  2. Students will work on activities related to the topic in groups and have time to prepare a short presentation (5 minute) for the following week.
  3. At the beginning of the each lecture, the students will present their work from the previous week and receive feedback from the lecturer and their peers

No specific prior knowledge is required. Throughout the course every student will be asked to present his/her results in front of the class two times. The completion confirmation will be given to students who present at least 2 times (at least once in the first 6 weeks and once in the next 6 weeks), and take part in at least 8 group activities.

What I think would work

Basically make it an old school class, make attendance mandatory, give lots of individualized homework, find people to grade the homework, and only allow people to pass the course that have gotten good grades from their homework. Basically make them sweat, it is for their own good, most are unable to appreciate what they are given, force them, they may thank you later.