Tag Archives: Einstein

Everyday examples contribute to successful learning

Some weeks ago I quoted Adams and Felder [2008] who said that the ‘educational role of faculty [academic staff] is not to impart knowledge; but to design learning environments that support…knowledge acquisition’ [see ‘Creating an evolving learning environment’ on February 21st, 2018].  A correspondent asked how I create a learning environment and, in response, this is the first in a series of posts on the topic that will appear every third week.  The material is taken from a one-day workshop that Pat Campbell [of Campbell-Kibler Associates] and I have given periodically in the USA [supported by NSF ] and UK [supported by HEA] for engineering academics.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that ‘knowledge is experience, everything else is just information’.  I believe that a key task for a university teacher of engineering is to find the common experiences of their students and use them to illustrate engineering principles.  This is relatively straightforward for senior students because they will have taken courses or modules delivered by your colleagues; however, it is more of a challenge for students entering the first year of an engineering programme.  Everyone is unique and a product of their formative conditions, which makes it tricky to identify common experiences that can be used to explain engineering concepts.  The Everyday Engineering Examples, which feature on a page of this blog [https://realizeengineering.blog/everyday-engineering-examples/], were developed to address the need for illustrative situations that would fall into the experience of most, if not all, students.  Two popular examples are using the splits in sausages when you cook them to illustrate two-dimensional stress systems in pressure vessels [see lesson plan S11] and using a glass to extinguish a birthday candle on a cup cake to explain combustion processes [see lesson plan T11].

Everyday Engineering Examples were developed as part of an educational research project, which was funded by the US National Science Foundation [see ENGAGE] and demonstrated that this approach to teaching works.  The project found that significantly more students rated their learning with Everyday Engineering Examples as high or significant than in the control classes independent of the level of difficult involved [Campbell et al. 2008].  So, this is one way in which I create a learning environment that supports knowledge acquisition.  More in future posts…

References

Adams RS & Felder RM, Reframing professional development: A systems approach to preparing engineering educators to educate tomorrow’s engineers. J. Engineering Education, 97(3):230-240, 2008

Campbell PB, Patterson EA, Busch Vishniac I & Kibler T, Integrating Applications in the Teaching of Fundamental Concepts, Proc. 2008 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, (AC 2008-499), 2008

 

CALE #1 [Creating A Learning Environment: a series of posts based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell and Eann Patterson in the USA supported by NSF and the UK supported by HEA]

Is the world incomprehensible?

For hundreds of years, philosophers and scientists have encouraged one another to keep their explanations of the natural world as simple as possible.  Ockham’s razor, attributed to the 14th century Franciscan friar, William of Ockham, is a well-established and much-cited philosophical principle that of two possible explanations, the simpler one is more likely to be correct.  More recently, Albert Einstein is supposed to have said: ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’.  I don’t think that William of Ockham and Albert Einstein were arguing that we should keep everything simple; but rather that we should not make scientific explanations more complicated than necessary.  However, do we have a strong preference for focusing on phenomena whose behaviour is sufficiently uncomplex that it can be explained by relatively simple theories and models?  In other words, to quote William Wimsatt, ‘we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds the capability of our detection apparatus and explanatory models’.  Most of us find science hard; perhaps, this is not just about the language used by the cognoscenti to describe it [see my post on ‘Why is thermodynamics so hard?‘ on February 11th, 2015]; but, more about the complexity of the world around us.  To think about this level of complexity requires us to assemble and synchronize very large collections of neurons (100 million or more) in our brains, which is the very opposite of the repetitive formation of relatively small assemblies of neurons that Susan Greenfield has argued are associated with activities we find pleasurable [see my post entitled ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  This might imply that thinking about complexity is not pleasurable for most us, or at least requires very significant effort, and that this explains the aesthetic appeal of simplicity.  However, as William Wimsatt has pointed out, ‘simplicity is not reflective of a metaphysical principle of nature’ but a constraint applied by us; and which, if we persist in its application, will render the world incomprehensible to us.

Sources:

William C. Wimsatt, Randomness and perceived randomness in evolutionary biology, Synthese, 43(2):287-329, 1980.

Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, Allen Lane, 2016.