One year later: the vicissitudes of the new engineering education system

Last Christmas I got a new syllabus, but there is no syllabus available for real students.

The last time I wrote something for Ars Technica, I enthusiastically described my new approach to electrical engineering. We were starting a pilot program in February, and I promised to write a follow-up at the end of the school year, which was in July. To be honest, I was so tired of class that I simply didn't force myself to write about it during summer vacation.

Now that we're done with the Christmas holidays, I finally feel like I can take a picture. This is not all bright colors and beautiful scenery, but the landscape looks promising.

For those of you who don't remember the previous piece, Summary: We built on a traditional approach that moved the course into a project. Curriculum-based, where students have to choose how they can demonstrate their ability to use their knowledge of electrical engineering. The philosophy is that the ability to apply knowledge and skills in the right context is a good indication that a person understands what they have learned. This means that we need to set the right context and allow students to gain the right knowledge and skills. But progress is now evident.

If I were to summarize what I learned last year: Good teaching tools really matter, global communication with students must be effective, and teachers must monitor their lessons. To Project


Prior to this new approach to training, I went through several iterations. I have tried to be the teacher that each lesson contains millions of slides. I tried to be a chalk teacher and a conversationalist without slides. I tried to be a teacher with interactive lessons. In the traditional group with an emphasis on direct instruction, tools are available to the individual teacher.

In an integrated curriculum, where students are expected to take initiative and need good and timely feedback, tools are really important and cannot always be left to individual teachers. When we started in February, our current Learning Management system could not easily support us. You promised a modern learning management system and were able to put us to the test to implement it...but it wasn't supposed to be available until the middle of the semester. We don't yet have good tools to support students, students who have to add what they've done to what we call portfolios. And we had no good way to formalize the notes given to students.

Finally, the first half of the semester relied on Microsoft Teams. Teams SharePoint is a suit and tie that hides a missing arm, a broken knee, and brain damage. Student folders were originally folders with manually configured permissions to restrict access. Channels were used to store relevant training materials, exercises, and project information. Nobody, not even the teachers, knew where to find something.

The move to Canvas, our new learning management system, has improved things. However, since it was also new to us, we couldn't get the most out of it. After half a semester, there was a clear need for some good tools and the ability to use them consistently. Announcement


Teachers are influenced by the new teaching style. The idea is that students should take more responsibility for their education. The choice and freedom of the student in their project and the type of evidence of their competence should be expressed through this project. This also means that students have the option to attend classes and practical exercises - this is their education, and if they do not want to attend class, this is their choice. It was a huge cultural change for our teachers, and they kept asking each other how they could make student presence mandatory. And I had to constantly tell them that they shouldn't even try.

Some teachers have taken student choice in the sense that the student has to choose in everything. For example, a teacher sets goals for a task (what the task should show). The students responded with individual assignments - and they did a very good job. But then the teacher was faced with a row of individual assignments for classification: something that took some time. If that was the only task and it was included in the portfolio (which it could be) it wouldn't be a problem. But this wasn't the only assignment, and the students didn't realize they could and should use homework as a guide. Thus, the teacher engaged in scoring much higher than he should have done, which was then wasted due to poor communication.

The other teachers simply resumed their usual routine, with this expecting the students to give notes to each other on their homework. But, with no way to give feedback, he found that he was giving feedback on each student's homework, which wasn't the point.

Teachers also found it very difficult to work on student projects. Since each student worked on something different, the teachers were never sure what was right for the students or not... nor did they really ask.

On the positive side, the students came up with great ideas about what they wanted to build. And it wasn't even difficult to expand the ideas into what they could do in the allotted time and the knowledge they could create in that time. But the teachers were not fully prepared for the demands he made. For example, all students at the beginning of a project should know how to connect things like accelerometers to a microprocessor. But the program teacher made variables, control expressions, etc. (using assembler language) and left little time for students to understand how to read data from their sensors.

In the end, each student provided detailed results of their projects, but many simply did not know how to provide evidence of their knowledge, or even what constituted evidence.


The students experienced a lot of skepticism and were confused as to what could or could not be used as evidence. This was the weak link. Thanks to the weak tools, it was really difficult to communicate with the students and provide an easy and clear way to create a working sample.

The promised feedback was very limited. Group teachers were unable to keep track of what students were doing, and individual teachers were unable to translate their class call into notes for student project or work assignments. This caused the students to swim in a sea of ​​uncertainty.

Even knowing the working time was not clear. Our division today: It was a morning class, an afternoon work project, and a self-study. But project work and self-study were not on the student list. The School Coronation Act stated that students were only allowed to enter the school for project and practical work, but since it was not on the list, the students were not sure if they were allowed to enter the school. The bottom line: The actual project time is much less than expected. Announcement

Version 2.0

We started the new approach with a small group of 15 students. The September group will have about 100 students, so we needed to make changes. Since we showed that none of the teachers were willing to deal with students with individual projects, we created one "toolkit" project for the first half of the semester. In this project, students were able to demonstrate about 90% of what was expected for the first semester.

Once again, there was a valley of uncertainty. The students' first task was to figure out what they would have to do to complete the project. After about two and a half weeks of wrangling, we gave them an introduction to the project. All students participated, and each student took action immediately thereafter. When I said that's exactly what I want, the teachers panicked (although the introduction is a week late): we give the students the opportunity to apply themselves and then offer a lesson to help them.

Teachers were more familiar with the Learning Management system (although they still had problems with it), but the new Portfolio plugin was not (nor enough) for the Learning Management System. The students didn't know how to use it, the teachers didn't know how to use it, and no one took the time to learn (there are only so many hours in the day). The bottom line is that many of the students we thought were doing really well—and even showed that their machines were working—didn't provide any evidence of appreciation.

It was a strange experience: high student satisfaction, low to average teacher satisfaction, and low to average academic scores.

Improvements Needed

It became clear which teachers really needed to change their subjects. The idea is to really build your lessons around the project. This often means a top-down approach, where you first focus on how and why you do something and then build theoretical foundations. Now that teachers have tested this, some are reviewing and changing their content to better fit the project.

Another problem was the orientation debate. In the first semester, we tested a tool that was described as a good way for students to track their progress (and for teachers to track student progress). It was a failure. Feedback was still an issue, as teachers were still busy completing a number of tasks they had to review, a very slow process. The project is not a set, but it is still well defined and fairly complete. Once again, teachers and students are struggling to make ends meet.

Now we keep track of students' progress more simply: Each teacher group keeps a PowerPoint file. Each student adds (at least) two slides summarizing the next week's activities and the next week's schedule. In addition, it is a slide that tracks the progress of a group project and the current project budget. It is very quick for students to ask this question to their teacher and teacher. Even better, this is a great guide to personal planning and a project already reviewed and given feedback.

We've also changed the way feedback is given. First, we create a moment of planned feedback midway through the project period. At this point, each project group receives feedback from all teachers simultaneously. Second, the learning management system has an in-house feedback tool. In this tool, the teacher gives oral feedback to the student in the classroom (or anywhere) and the student writes a summary of the comments on the tool. The teacher can then rate the student (good, average, poor) and respond to the summary, and you're done. For the teacher, this is much faster and rates the student's response to the comments rather than the comments themselves, which is more important.

Another aspect that still needs improvement is the ease of evaluation. At present, we are still doing the assessment on the islands, while the goal is the integrated assessment. The only reason this hasn't changed is because this type of infrastructure change requires a time-consuming, multi-step review process. It's set up for students starting in February, but unfortunately the current batch is one year away from the island's assessment. Announcement

Second year and after

Students who started in February will be entering their second year soon. We took the lessons of the first two semesters live. In each second year semester, half of the taught modules are grouped with an attached project (car model for this group). The project defines the content of the curriculum and it should be broad enough that each student can own a part of the project. The project is then supported with live instruction, hands-on exercises, and more.

The second part depends only on the choice of students. There are no scheduled lessons and tutors are given to students instead. The only difficult limit to what students can choose to study is for a qualified person to be able to assess them. In practice, students are ranked according to their interests and assigned a coach who can guide at higher levels - the teacher does not have a thorough knowledge of the topic and leads the learning process - or at the lower level - the teacher has a thorough knowledge of the topic. It can provide guidance as well as guidance for the learning process.

Although we did not start, about half of the students have already chosen. As expected, this also became a negotiation process. There are some things that we do not support (eg how to install industrial equipment). We do not allow students to have too limited interests.

In principle, students come up with a vague idea, and we encourage them to make it concrete. Then we review it and make changes with the students. The good thing is that with the pooling of interests, the projects and themes are quite similar, so the negotiation process is very fast. I think both teachers and students are excited and afraid of this process. The pandemic has made things more difficult, and teachers have had to work even harder. We have made mistakes in this direction. But we are in a much better position than we were a year ago. Most teachers are confident they can make it happen. The end result will not be exactly what you initially thought it would be, but it will contain all the hallmarks of basic philosophy. Learn the secrets of dark matter with Ars and Dr. Paul Satter

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