Rethinking curriculum: some random thoughts

For the past one week or so, I have been reading Peter Medawar‘s The threat and the glory: reflections on science and scientists. While discussing the philosophy of Karl Popper, Medawar says the following:

No scientist thinks of himself as a man of facts and calculations. Popper puts it thus: “It is not his possession of knowledge that makes the man of science, but his persistent and relentlessly critical search for truth.”

That brings me to the question, namely, how about engineers? Are they men and women of facts and calculations? If so, in the age of Google and Watson, do we need such a training? If not, what are engineers for?

The above questions were also brought home to me by one of the students with whom we were chatting. He told us that his class (in general) thinks that since one can always google and find out, it is not important to remember

  • numbers (approximately, what is the melting point of aluminium or steel), or,
  • names (what is the instrument that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy in a power station), or,
  • sometimes even concepts (why should I know the definition of equilibrium melting point of a pure material? In my job, in future, I might never need to know; however, if I need it badly, I can google, find the relevant page, read it, and in an hour or so, I will know all that I need to know on the question).

If the student attitude is like this, I feel, we have an obligation either to convince them why these things are essential or to change our curriculum in ways in which it will reflect the “real world” scenario outside of the walls of the academia.

Explaining the curriculum

One reason why students have viewpoints like this is because they have never been told the philosophy behind the curriculum. Take an English Literature course; the students might be asked to read a novel, say, The English Teacher of R K Narayan.  Even before they begin reading the novel, the students do know that their reading is different from that of a lay (non-literary) person’s reading of the novel. They also know that reading the novel is not to train them in reading but to train them in other things. Similarly, when students of mathematics are taught proofs, they know that learning the proofs is only one part of their mathematical training. You might know all the proofs and still not be a mathematician.

I feel, that in engineering courses such meta-learning goals (which are sort of obvious in literature and mathematics courses) are not clear to our students. They do not know what is it that they are learning when they learn, say, the equilibrium melting point of a pure material and things of the sort. Thus, I feel that explaining them the meta-learning goals will help them appreciate what they are being taught as well as evaluate by themselves along the way as to how much of the meta-learning is happening.

If we need to explain the meta-learning goal, of course, it means that we know what they are. The prime question is, are we? For example, what is the meta-learning objectives in a materials engineering curriculum where the students are asked to learn structure, thermodynamics, kinetics, transport phenomena, phase transformations, properties (mechanical, electrical, magnetic), and processing? And, how much of these meta-learning goals will be of use to the students even if they decide not to stick to the materials engineering field after their graduation? I think we need to think more along these lines and collectively come up with some answers (which, at the moment at least, seem to be muddled or not known in my mind — one reason why I am writing this post — to get my ideas cleared on the issue).

Knowing names and numbers

Once students know of the importance of learning the concepts, the naming of them and the numbers automatically follow. As Feynman observes in one of his interviews (available on YouTube — I think here, or one of the other parts), just by knowing the name, we may not know anything; however, knowing the name comes very handy for discussions and effective communication. Similarly, even though one might not know the exact number (and, may have to look it up), the orders of magnitudes of quantities is part of the understanding — much like a mathematicians way of learning a proof; they do not memorise it but build it up from first principles every time, and after several such exercises know it by heart). So, our emphasis in our teaching for knowing the names and numbers should be secondary to concepts and their understanding.

Engineering is becoming more science-like

Finally, I feel that there are good reasons to believe that current engineering training lays more emphasis on engineering sciences. Some of our students who come from the industry, have told me a change that has taken place in the shop floor. More and more of routine jobs, which  would have been carried out by an engineer or technician in the past, have been taken over by machines these days. So, the engineer is called only  when there is a hiccup. This means that the engineers job description on the shop floor sounds more and more like that of a scientist in the R&D division. Further, as a discipline, Materials Engineering itself is at that edge where engineering meets science; unlike other engineers, we do not take any property for granted and make our engineering solutions based on them; instead, we generally try to find the means of changing the property itself; this, generally gives a feeling to other engineers that we are not engineers but more science oriented people at best and artisans at worst; on the other hand scientists have difficulty in accepting materials engineers as one among them because of the emphasis that these engineers put on applications than on the basic underlying phenomena; in the end, the net effect of all this is to make the possession of exact knowledge of numbers important only to the extent that it also helps in our understanding the underlying phenomena as far as materials engineering goes — once again making the learning of concepts the primary goal of our engineering curriculum.

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