In Riley’s article “What’s wrong with evidence?”, she unpacks the origin and long-term effects of “evidence-based practice” in STEM education. The author begins by describing how the idea of “evidence” is problematic, specifically in engineering education. Riley first presents the semantic difficulty of separating evidence from opinions or beliefs, and questions the qualifications of those making these distinctions.

Riley argues the practicality of standardized education, and questions whether evidence-based education is truly learner-centered. Perhaps too often the curricula are designed around the desired outcomes in the classroom, and lose focus of useful and necessary skills. The author warns that such programs as “No Child Left Behind” are dangerous, and limit knowledge collaboration and production overall.  I also believe she wrote this with a thesaurus in her lap; her vocabulary is absurd.

Our friendly neighborhood TA, Homero, encouraged me to share my experiences with this topic. I cannot speak for engineering-related disciplines, as my focus is in Entomology.  However, for the duration of my collegiate career, it felt as though achieving the perfect “bell curve” was a much higher priority then our learning process. For example, I can’t remember a single compound structure from organic chemistry, and routinely received 70’s on my exams, but still left the class with an “A”. The professor would graph out the test average on the blackboard after each exam, and show us how he manipulated the grades to achieve the bell shape. In the end, he received good ratings for having a tidy class average, and I received the grade I desired, but did either of us truly benefit from the experience? I would argue the whole ordeal was a waste of time and money.

I feel that focusing strictly on the outcomes of the educational experience undercuts the importance of the student’s journey.  Discussion, communication and creative thinking aren’t encouraged… tenants that are the very backbone of scientific advancement. Like many, I don’t have any easy solutions to this issue. Facilitating such an environment is particularly hard in a larger classroom setting.  However, I feel present day higher education can’t see the forest for the trees.  Results and statistics are too highly valued, and the student’s experience as a whole is easily overlooked.

Mission Accomplished?

I chose to assess the mission statements of two universities that had the most influence in my personal and professional development (aside from Virginia Tech, of course). These schools offered me a  diversity of experiences that allowed me to refine my interests and expand my skill set in two exciting and challenging environments.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a year abroad studying at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand while working toward my B.S. in Wildlife Science at Virginia Tech. The University of Canterbury is not a research university, I don’t believe they categorize their institutions of higher learning in NZ as they do here in the US.  The mission is three-fold, and speaks to the influence this university has locally, globally and culturally. In my experience, academics in New Zealand were keenly interested in contributing to the advancement of knowledge on an international level while still making contributions locally. I imagine this is due to the large percentage of international and exchange students that are enrolled in UC. This is keenly reflected in the mission statement, which is lengthy and specific in it’s endeavors. New Zealand also honors the heritage of it’s native people (the Maori) with great intention and purpose. All road signs are bilingual, and Maori history and language classes are required for all students. This aspect is also carefully outlined in the mission statement.

Conversely, the University of Colorado’s mission statement is short and sparse. When comparing the two statements, I am struck by how “American” and business-oriented the verbiage is.  The statement seems clinical, and uninspired and leaves little for me to consider. This is most likely due to this university being a well-known research institution, and must reflect the ideals of a well regulated and prestigious institution.

University of Canterbury (Christchurch, New Zealand)

Mission:  The University of Canterbury comprises its staff, students, graduates and alumni. The University of Canterbury Act 1961 describes the purpose of the University as existing “for the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination and maintenance thereof by teaching and research.” This is carried through to the Education Act 1989 and informs the mission of the University.

  • Our purpose within the international community of scholars is to advance knowledge by research; to maintain and disseminate this knowledge through teaching, publications and critical debate; to confirm outcomes through the awarding and conferring of degrees, diplomas and certificates; to serve as a repository of knowledge and expertise; and to act as critic and conscience of society.
  • Our purpose within the New Zealand tertiary sector is to contribute to a tertiary education system that is characterised by excellence, relevance, academic freedom and improved access for all; to work with others to enrich intellectual discourse, educational quality and research activity; and to contribute to the intellectual, cultural, social and economic life and well-being of our city, region and nation.
  • Our purpose as a university of Aotearoa New Zealand, acknowledging the Treaty of Waitangi in all our activities, is to respond and contribute to the educational, research and development needs and aspirations of Mäori, as tangata whenua.

 University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado)

The University of Colorado is a public research university with multiple campuses serving Colorado, the nation, and the world through leadership in high-quality education and professional training, public service, advancing research and knowledge, and state-of-the-art health care.

Anti-teaching vs. Traditional Teaching: Could students benefit from both?

Wesch begins his article by stating “Students are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.”  Gauged by involvement and engagement. Specifically, Wesch’s students complained about buying textbooks they never open, and feeling apathetic about assigned readings. These are certainly sentiments that are commonly expressed by students in higher education, I have often felt this way myself.

Wesch refers to this disconnect between students and educators as a “crisis of significance”. The “significance problem” addresses the feeling of displacement students face in the classroom.  Students are unsure of their “significance” or “purpose” in the grand narrative of their discipline. Today’s education system places emphasis on the memorization of facts and class ranking. It is easy to see why students would lose site of where they fit in the “big picture”, and stay motivated on a personal level, when they are often treated like cogs in a machine.

Successful classes I have taken encourage me to find an aspect of the class that I connect with and expand on that aspect.  I personally felt no ownership or attachment to the material I was taught in the 400 person gen-ed classes that were compulsory in undergrad. This was partially due to the subject matter, but also had a lot to do with the general feeling that I was nothing more than a number…a small fish in a very big school.  I could completely disappear and the major professor would have no idea.  I realize self-motivation on the level of higher education is largely the responsibility of the student. However, the teacher should make an effort to connect with the pupil on an individual basis, and make them think about what they originally wanted to gain from higher ed.

Unlike the author, I believe there is still a place for the lecture hall in higher education.  In undergrad and graduate courses, I never felt that I couldn’t question what was being taught to me by this “higher authority” and demand further clarification.  “Anti-teaching” seems like an aggressive approach to me, as myself and many students like me benefitted greatly from the traditional educational setting.  While some students would benefit from a more intimate experience in a smaller classroom setting, this is not a reality for most in larger land-grant universities and technological schools.  I don’t think one form of education is better than the other, but a diversity of approaches would benefit the diversity of learning styles represented by students today.

The role of Blogging and Twitter in Academic Research and the Broader Scientific Community

In his article, Tim Hitchcock discusses the importance of twitter and blogging in today’s academic research setting.  Hitchcock claims these platforms act to facilitate academic collaboration, teaching and public engagement. Furthermore, the content or “output” that is generated on these platforms can be a very powerful tool with the right audience.

Hitchcock hits on an important point early in the article, concerning the value of the “broader social discourse”. The idea of universal discussion resonates greatly with me, as I have always held a strong belief in the importance of citizen science. As educators and as professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure our area of expertise can be easily understood by the layperson. What is the point of our research if only a few key experts can understand the broader implications?

Hitchcock believes there is a lack of academic collaboration and communication on the universal scale, and academic professionals are “loosing our place in the broader social dialog”. Hitchcock offers such social media platforms as twitter and blogging as a potential solution to this problem. He explains publishing your research in a universally accessible setting can reach a much larger community of like-minded individuals. This larger audience can propagate the sharing of ideas, and build on our global knowledge base.

Indeed, the translation of complex ideas into bite-size social media excerpts has the potential to be problematic. However, I believe the benefits of facilitating public conversation in the scientific arena means we must persevere to adapt to these novel technological platforms.