Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reflecting on Fred's Reflections

Where has the time gone? Just a couple of days ago I was thinking to myself, "Fred, you have never read a blog, let alone written your own. Will I like it? Will anyone read it? Will it feel like a diary? Will it hurt?

I am happy to say the fear of the unknown was mostly unwarranted in this situation, as now I feel reasonably competent in this type of informal writing. To critique my blogging, I would say that my strengths were grammar, using coherent English, and getting a point across with structured and logical writing. My big weakness was the lack of originality and blandness of what I wrote for the most part. I chalk a lot of this up to my engineering-type personality of wanting to be precise, concise, and straightforward as possible when communicating. Unfortunately, this turns out to be not a very creative way of writing, which fails to hold most people's attention outside of discussing technical subjects of math, science, and engineering. There were a few pieces that I was more pleased with than the rest, mentioned below.

In The Motivation of Numbers, I took the counterpoint to what most of our class discussion implied. Instead of lauding the implementation of grading systems, such as the Apgar score, I focused on the corrupting influences of numbers to our motivations. I thought by going against the grain of most of our discussion and not following the writing prompt I could reveal a fresh look at the subject. Although it did this somewhat, the best I could come up with for examples was the overly-typical and mundane "No Child Left Behind" initiative.

As the semester progressed, I tried to make the subjects from our readings apply to my personal experience, as shown in Alignment of the Saltshaker. Here I tried to explain how the house I live in functions as a unit, and analyze whether we are aligned as a group and how we can improve alignment. I felt it was successful, but could have been expanded to putting our house in perspective of our whole lives, including the volunteer work and group activities we do together with our church, and the involvement we have with Saltshaker alumni after individuals graduate as a consequence of alignment.

Writing as a Sinking Ship made good use of metaphor. Writing in this way taught me that for someone as logical and boring as a chemical engineer, a striking metaphor that has multiple dimensions of interpretation can greatly improve my essay. Going down with the ship is like holding onto close-minded writing, and jumping off the ship into the icy water is the painful but freeing decision to open up my writing. I think it was a good analogy that helped me stop and reflect about how to pull myself away from the narrow methodology of writing that I have been indoctrinated with for the past umpteen years.

Shared Vision at Illinois and Elsewhere seemed to flow more than any other posts this semester, maybe because it felt like I was preaching against the evils of bureaucracy, large class sizes, and alcohol. I felt like the product of class discussion and learning over the pasts semester made this piece quite a bit more than it would have been at the beginning of class. I was able to see more clearly the types of things that promote and inhibit change, and point out what these might be at U of I.

Fortunately, I do have high hopes for my future blogging, because I have pretty much overcome my fear of blogging (long and hard as it was). And I vow to blog on topics of interest to me, eliminating the forced feeling of a class blog- perhaps a combination of poetry composition and energy technolgy practice and politics in the United States? However, it does not pain me one bit to say that the blogging for this class was a valuable experience and I am happy to have worked through it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shared Vision at Illinois and Elsewhere

I would agree that engagement/disengagement with students is very similar to Senge’s issue of commitment, compliance, and apathy in shared vision. I liked the way Senge defined the difference between a person with compliance and a person with commitment. He stated that the compliant person with will follow the rules of the “game”, but a person with commitment will be willing to change any rules that stand between them and winning the “game”. The engaged students with a commitment to their own education will seek out experiences beyond those required. They are the ones that attend special lectures, become involved in a professional organization, and stop by to talk and ask professors about their research. The disengaged students with a compliant attitude toward their education follow every rule and recommendation to achieve their goal of graduating and looking good to employers. Some of them strive to achieve 4.0s and do research to enhance their resume, but ultimately see in all of their tasks merely a means to an end.


Not very many students have a vision of their own learning. True to the compliance nature of many students, their “vision” is to “win the game” by “following the rules”, and thus do well in school and get a good job. A few students have a personal vision of their own education, and although their peers may sometimes see them as “dreamers”, they are willing to break all the rules, to climb mountains, and cross seas to accomplish their ideals. These are the ones that end up doing great things, much greater than just building great resumes.


How can U of I create a shared vision for students’ education? Well, I believe the difficulty of achieving a shared vision increases exponentially with the size of the university. First of all, larger schools have more bureaucracy and rules toward educational procedure, which gives students an obstacle to being commited if in their own mind a rule of the university is preventing their personal vision of education from being realized. This happened to me recently as I went to see if a class I want to take (ECON 302) could be applied toward general education for me, an engineer. But despite the appearance of a class that could help me become more well-rounded, it did not fulfill the criteria that university put forth as a firm basis for what classes can be gen eds, such as having a writing requirement. Anyway, it would help to bring each student’s vision of their education into a university shared vision if the rules were more flexible to the vision and intent of learning for the individual.


Another reason that larger institutions like Illinois have a harder time creating a shared vision is student feelings of insignificance. When students seem insignificant and can’t see their impact on education around them-such as asking a question in a lecture class of 700- they fall into compliance or apathy. It was interesting to read about the rule of 150 in The Tipping Point because it explains the issue of large groups very well. In small groups (~150 or less) students are able to know enough of the rest of the individuals for a subconscious accountability to become innate to the group, where members know who does what. In this case organization and coordination of goals and vision is easier than large groups. In larger groups the students feel more “on their own” in such a sea of young people, and it becomes very hard to perceive the status of others and one’s own status in the group, whether they are doing right, wrong, or nothing. According to Gladwell, these larger groups need much more elaborate organizational structures to keep a singular focus or vision for the group. Thus, U of I can facilitate creating shared vision of undergraduate education by breaking learning units (i.e. classes) into more manageable sizes. The question is whether this can be done cost effectively with peer mentors, or the stronger leadership of teaching assistants is needed.


A third reason that comes to mind on how Illinois struggles to create shared vision in such a huge student body is the prevalence of “distractions”. It is no surprise to anyone in the class that many students find it very easy to get into the party/drinking scene at U of I, perhaps as a combination of the wide number of fraternities/sororities and the already alienating character of an enormous student body. There are even a large number of professional societies that promote such things (i.e. engineering barcrawls). In addition, I observe a multiplying effect of each student that takes to the distractions and provokes interest and acceptance by each of his or her peers. Although many would argue that students that are heavy into partying are making their own choices, students make there own choices on every college campus in the United States, and yet here we are, with certain large “party school” campuses sticking out of the crowd. Point being that a suggestion for promoting shared vision at U of I, more initiative could be taken to lessen negative distractions on and around the campus community.


While the individual vision of a professor or administrator to create within the University a shared vision of undergraduate education is a very worthy pursuit, it is a formidable task that will require committed faculty and students, willing to break rules, climb mountains, and cross seas in order to "win" the realization of our ideal.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


From my experience there are certainly opportunities for Freshmen to interact with upperclassmen and be in an apprenticeship position on campus. The source of these interactions can be as wide ranging as college dormrooms, RSOs, classes, or outside social experiences.


As a freshman I lived in a certified private dorm, and I was assigned a room with a senior and a suite including another senior. Although there experience in the biology curriculum did not directly apply to chemical engineering, they each had more than two cents to tell me about what I should do in college. The two of them were really a stark contrast of the kind of “wisdom” that passes down from older to younger U of I students. On one hand, my roommate would tell me of easy classes that I can take, encouraged me to spend less time studying, and generally offered advice on how to “work the system” at the university. On the other hand, my suitemate would talk to me about opportunities to get involved on campus to get help or give help, how I can better prepare for a career, and generally offered advice on how to be an active participant in making my college years fruitful.


The difference in “wisdom” from these two sources was like night and day. Had I followed one set of advice completely, I would have gotten relatively little out college and aimed to just “glide” to graduation to get my degree, while not going out of my way to make friends or have healthy focused relationships. Had I followed the other set of advice completely, I would probably be even better off than I am now, with much accomplished academically and many connections made with people through reaching out as much as possible.


Herein lies my major concern with social apprenticeship in college- it seems to be very hit-or-miss. And I feel from the size and composition of the student body at U of I that quite a few sadly turn out to be misses. This may be an unalterable ill of American society though, that there are few motivated individuals with pure motives that want to help others to be motivated, too. Unfortunately, this is highly contagious in the college setting, when high school valedictorians can become “gliders” in four short years (my roommate with little motivation is an example of this).


Academic apprenticeship gained through such avenues as professional clubs and RSOs, although more narrow, can yield a more consistently positive influence, since the tie that bonds members has an underlying tone of fostering personal and professional growth and pursuit of goals. The problem for such a high enrollment university, though, is that many students may “slip through the cracks” and never reach out or be reached out to through these organizations. It seems that this is more of the hole we are trying to help fill as a class project. If through the avenue of high enrollment classes we can reach students typically lost in the shuffle and start them on the path of focused relationships that foster personal and professional growth and pursuit of goals as the professional clubs and RSOs do, it may effectively form a bridge for students.


Across the chasm that lies between a successful high school career with familiar faces and activities, and the “new” experience of life and study at a large public research university like U of I is where freshmen need refocusing. This can be effectively directed by older students that have experience and a drive to motivate younger students.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fred's Learning

Whether I have learned from an experience can seem an easy thing to know, but a hard thing to explain (sometimes I just know that I know that I know). I think probably the best evidence for whether I have learned is whether an experience has been transformative. If I gain knowledge but it does not change the way I perceive the world, even a little bit, then I have not actually learned- I have just memorized. This idea is especially relevant now at a time when Google and Wikipedia have made rote facts about as important as knowing Morse code, and thus the transformative action of learning experiences is almost the exclusive goal for an individual. Granted, there are some experiences that cause great transformation; for example, the awareness of poverty that comes with spending time working in a deaf village in Jamaica. Other experiences seem smaller but still shift or enhance our perception; for example, learning how the calculus can be applied to optimize profits in a business application. Whatever learning experience I go through, however, I don’t feel I’ve learned if I don’t come out a slightly different person.

In courses, typically my learning is communicated to the teacher by way of their evaluation methods (e.g. exams, papers, homework) and this is usually a good indicator for me. I can really think of few times when I felt like I knew the material, but could not perform in these tests of my learning. However, it is completely possible that throughout my sixteen-plus years of formal education that these traditional methods of evaluation have infiltrated my personal definition of learning to where the test not only measures my learning, it defines my learning. This would be a disappointing conclusion since it reduces the richness of an experience in my own mind to an algorithm.

The only possible exception to learning despite what the exams show is the rare case when a teacher’s expectations are ill-defined and the study material is unknown to the class. This usually can only happen when there is a very small class size, perhaps making the teacher relax too much- one particular class of mine where this situation occurred had an enrollment of six students. In this case, I remember feeling that I learned every time I left class or did the homework, but the exams seemed to emphasize random subjects that I had not taken the time to master. This lack of communication with regard to expectations between teacher and student could have been helped by the implementation of a more specific syllabus or study guides outlining what he wanted us to know.

The communication of evidence of my learning outside a class depends on if the course is closer to general education or technical education. To communicate my mastery in an area of general education is easier, as many people will have gained enough knowledge of their own to relate to what I have learned, even if it is above and beyond what is common; this could be explaining grammar learned in my English class, which many can remember learning back in high school. To communicate mastery in an area of technical expertise to the average person is difficult because they may be so removed from the background of the material in vocabulary, methods, or history, that no bridge can be built in a short amount of time that allows them to understand if I know my stuff or if I just seem “fluent” in the foreign language that is “magnetohydrodynamic modeling algorithms” or whatever. Context determines whether others can see evidence of learning.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Well-roundedness or Specialized Curriculum

Could required courses be taken out of college majors?

One could see that freeing up the student’s schedule to take electives of his or her choice could help the student become more well-rounded. This notion of well-roundedness is not just an idea that a graduate will have broad learning in multiple unrelated areas not directly linked to the concentration of their studies. It is also important that a student build perspective from taking classes outside their major, so that when performing on a job after college they can see the “big picture” of what they are trying to accomplish. They should be able to see the societal impacts of their actions and how they fit into historical and business contexts, even in highly technical areas. However, there are already general education requirements and an amount of free electives (for most majors) for this exploration and perspective building to take place without taking away from the major requirements.

One argument against more free electives, however, is that many students looking for the “path of least resistance” through college will jump on the opportunity as a way to just become more disengaged from college learning by taking the easiest classes possible and minimally participating in using this opportunity to gain understanding of more diverse perspectives.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, I feel that all of the required courses in my major served to give me knowledge that I was expected to already have entering into my internship with ADM. This is not to say that I did not at times sense the presence of outdated or nearly-irrelevant material in some of my required courses.

One of my professors from the department of chemical & biomolecular engineering once explained that undergraduate ChemE courses are kind of like a hazing. They are forced upon us young ones because the older ones had to go through it, and thus as graduates we can be welcomed into the camaraderie of those who persevered in spite of an often grueling curriculum.

This is just to say that some courses in a major might seem non-utilitarian (“when am I going to ever use this?”), but they facilitate perspective-building within the major so a student can know the historical contexts, foundational development, important innovators, and major societal issues under otherwise technical subjects. Often, these supporting classes come under the heading of “technical electives” which are focused on this supporting knowledge or specific technical branches of study.

So, then a better question than the one first put forth is perhaps, “If employers want college graduates to be well-rounded and experts in their technical area, is the current balance of free electives and required courses giving them what they want?” At this time, it would seem that required courses should not be dropped.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Experiential Learning replaces Classes?

Apologies for not taking on this week’s prompt. For tying class themes together, I see the suggested prompt as a theme each week. I must say, though, that everyone in the class has unique methods and styles that I enjoy reading more than my own. This is not so much a disrespect to my own writing as a realization that I like hearing perspectives that help promote my 1-dimentional view of things to a more 3-dimensional view of class and general topics. This in turn gives me the warms satisfaction of a higher level of understanding more apt to be communicated to others in future discussions.

I instead would like to reflect on one example of my own experiential learning. Would what I have gained from my internship have been able to substitute for required courses in my major of chemical engineering?

Company: ADM in research park
Time: May 2009 to present
Job: Research and develop computer simulations of chemical processes in the area of sustainable biofuels

First of all, what have I gained? I would say to categorize what I have learned, (1) context of my academic material into real world application, (2) “duh” points not mentioned in my academic studies, (3) communication skills.

One good thing that I have taken away from my job experience that I would expect from any internship is an understanding of how the technologies and knowledge base from my science and engineering classes are applied to work in the real world. Software used in my senior design class is extensively used for simulation of processes, in place of the 60-plus-year-old pencil and paper techniques taught in most of my classes. On the other hand, the qualitative understanding of underlying system physics that is emphasized in all of my classes is very important because equations can’t tell you when or if they are to be used. I was also amazed that thinking back, I have probably directly used on the order of half of required course material in my internship. There are also some topics used in my internship that are beyond the scope of undergraduate courses, but that are usually studied in graduate school. So, in relation to my required classes, some material is indeed used in my experiential learning, but as more of what I should already have mastered. The role of my internship has been to give context to the learning, which improves the quality of the students that are able to participate in such a program.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between academic learning and experiential learning is the “duh” points that I have taken from my job. Most of these points in engineering disciplines are closely ties to economics and business considerations of products and processes. Some quick examples:
--Platinum and gold are superb catalysts; they are also too expensive to use in almost every situation
--It is a pain to deal with and dispose of millions of tons of highly corrosive acid on a yearly basis; alternatives should be seriously considered
--Sometimes you just use what’s lying around the lab because it’s more time and capital efficient, but it often makes for some odd laboratory setups and difficult calculations
This “duh” learning definitely improves the quality of the education of graduates from the department, but it doesn’t replace the material already being taught in my required courses. Thus, it is a plus for experiential learning that does not support reduction of required courses.

Communication. Yes, in required classes I have been taught to give nice informative presentations. My experiential learning has focused on what in a presentation is most important to hand off to the audience. In other words, my classes focused on clarity whereas my internship emphasized brevity and compactness of information (graphs not numbers, figures not words). I believe personally, both have been essential to my development in verbal and non-verbal communication.

In conclusion, my required courses could not be replaced with experiential learning, although experiential learning is very helpful to my professional preparation. General education courses, however, could be a target for replacement. And courses for majors with looser requirements could perhaps be replaced with more success than mine.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Writing as a Sinking Ship

I must admit, blogging as a new experience for me has been a little like jumping from a sinking Titanic into the icy waters of the sea in winter. Let me explain.

All of my shared writing that I’ve done up to now has been for a very specific audience- in most cases an audience of one- my teacher. I have been a very efficient learner growing up about what people want to hear. Teachers want to know that you understand the presented material, and that you can use it in correct context. This includes subjects directly related to writing, like grammar and literature, or indirectly related to writing, like chemical engineering. This type of writing, if published openly, would probably either bore most people, or be irrelevant enough for them not to want to read it. This type of writing is also ultimately self-alienating, and somewhat like going down with the Titanic in the way it confines individuals.

For me, the publishing of work to the open internet has a duality of effect on my attitude when composing. It is frightening because the audience could end up being anyone from my classmate to my mother, but it is freeing because I don’t feel pushed to please one person or type of person. The frightening part is coupled to by indoctrination by parents and teachers at a young age that the internet is a place where you must always be careful when inputting information; anyone connected to your past, present, or future could be reading. The freeing part allows me to write more about how I perceive things, and less how my audience may want to perceive things. Because the audience is an open one, I don’t even try to cater to their background, circumstances, beliefs, or biases. Instead, all I can do is humbly present my own experience and understanding with reasoning, and resign to the fact that there will be some people that vehemently disagree and some people that see my perspective as it is. The frightening part of publishing to an open internet is akin to jumping into a freezing sea, as it both hurts and can easily paralyze a person by the shock. Jumping in, however, allows an escape from a sinking ship and a way of freedom.

As a self-critique, I am not taking full advantage of the idea of posting to the internet as an open source. The benefits from openness are realized on my blog, but not necessarily the benefits of the internetness. The internet is a network of two-way streets, and I have not yet fully transferred the advantage of this structure to my blog. One thing that has happened is an exchange between individuals in the class reading and commenting on fellow classmates’ blogs. Ideally (and if each of us had more free time) we would fully extend this utilization outside the nucleated community of our classroom and outward to incorporate published writing and other media of outside sources that have meaning to us individually elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day, and for now it may be satisfactory for me to benefit from reflective writing on a blog as a way to get used to the open waters that invite me to express myself more freely.