CollegeQandA says: Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing for the Summer

Bird in water with fish in its mouthWell, as the school semester draws to an end, I’m taking a break from writing here until next semester.  I might do a little writing over the summer for this blog, but my focus will be on cleaning up the website and getting the book into final stages.  If you have any questions that you would like me to write about, then feel free to contact me.  Otherwise, best of luck in your summers, and keep on learning and doing.

Credits: photo titled: Watercolour Wildlife – June 2013 – Successful Grebe in the Early Evening Sunshine; by Gareth Williams


CollegeQandA book review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

Book Review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life? is written with us in mind, but presents ways to live with examples from how companies act and business theories apply.  The book reads well within the classic format of: story example(s) from business, business concept explained, and how concept can be applied to life theme.

The three major life themes are:

  • Finding your best fit career
  • Having good relationships
  • Staying out of jail

Each of these themes is covered well in the format described above, and overall, I enjoyed reading the book.  I plan on reading it again this summer if I have time.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book is about ideas in your life.  If many of us had the wisdom that is described in this book, not only would life be better, but college life could be leveraged even more to get greater gains.  For example, chapter four (“Your Strategy is Not What You Say It Is”) discusses how many of our (companies and people) resources are allocated to things other than what are our real goals.  A good strategy means that we put our time and money towards the goals that matter, and if we allocate them differently then it might mean our stated goals are not our true goals.  Yes, we all want to do well in classes, but does our allocation of resources truly show that?

I would recommend this book to…

This book is an interesting cross-section between self-help and business advice.  The strength is how business concepts are applied to living a life worth living (this is of course your definition of worth living).  This book is recommended for all of us interested in taking a different look on why we behave the way we do and how we might make that better.

CollegeQandA asks: Why are projects so important in College?

Why are projects so important in College?Building Construction

Projects are some of the closest activities you’ll do in College that have some similarity to the working world (that I assume you are trying to join).  A project allows you to demonstrate that you can do something from early conception to close to completion.

There are very few jobs in – taking exams

It’s true.  There just aren’t many jobs out there in taking exams, regurgitating facts, showing the steps on how you solved something, and picking between letters in multiple choice or picking true/false.  The follow up question should be, “Why then do we take all these exams in school?”

Well there are a number of reasons to take exams, but start with this idea that exams are meant to assess how well you have learned a particular set of concepts and ideas.  How should a teacher determine if you understand these ideas and concepts and give you feedback on your learning?  Exams and tests are a way to do this assessment at a reasonable time cost.  For example, with a test that I can create in about 4 hours, have students do in 1 hour, and mark/grade in 8 hours it costs only 17 hours and maybe 52 person hours (for a class of 30 students).  If a machine can grade the test, that time goes down.  So in many cases examinations are the easiest and most efficient (time perspective) method for assessing student knowledge.

For that same class of 30 students, if I spent 20 minutes in an oral examination to evaluate their understanding, it would take 10 hours assuming that I know the right oral questions to ask and probe, there are no delays between students, the scheduling of these oral questions is magically administrated, everyone takes exactly 20 minutes, and so on.  That assessment is harder to implement for the teacher though and the time will always be much greater.

Projects to the rescue

A project in a class is an opportunity to create an activity that can be assessed in reasonable time, but the depth of student work (including creativity, problem solving, communication, doing, and critical thinking) goes far deeper than almost any exam can capture.  Plain and simple, the learners doing the project tend to learn far more since they have to do something and solve all the steps to get it done.

I also like open ended projects since students have the opportunity to create and do something they’re interested in.  For engineers, this might be one of the few opportunities in their lives to work on their creations as opposed to being told what they need to do.

Finally, projects with their depth and unknown challenges they provide mirror more of what people tend to do in the working world.

Is there anything projects can’t do?

The worst thing about class projects is they lack a completion and quality aspect.  For example, a student group starts to do their project, gets close to the end of the semester, and runs out of time.  What do they do?  Submit what they have done and probably get a lower grade for their work.  The same is not true in the real world.  A lower grade for not completing a project or delivering a weak project is getting fired.  So projects lack a more pure assessment in college.

Second, most projects are done in groups again to simulate the “real-world”.  Group work has all sorts of complexities that make it hard to achieve something.  It seems like someone always free loads.  People are hard to work and get along with.

Projects have many other limitations, and are just another activity/assessment that is part of your learning.

Projects are good

Still, each project you have is an opportunity to establish your portfolio.  Projects are the rare opportunities in school to allow you to take some autonomy (see the book Drive by Pinker).  Projects can be lots of fun.  And projects are about the closest to real you can get in college.

Credits: photo titled: Construction; by Stephen Rush

CollegeQandA asks: How important are my grades?

How important are my grades?

Package with eggsI’m from Canada and I like to say, “we grade eggs, but we assess people to give them feedback on their learning”.

I, personally, think public grades as a measurement device of people is a bad idea.  Of course, I’m one of those weird people that is focused on this idea of learning.  From my perfect world perspective, I think that grades can be a summative indicator of your performance on an assessment(s).  As a private feedback measurement a grade is useful in helping the learner have a summary indicator that shows their performance on learning.  The summary grade with detailed feedback on what other aspects of the task that need to be worked on is a useful way for the learner to try and move forward.

Forget your utopia, how important are grades

In a credentialist (not sure that’s a word) based society, grades are important.  The reality is that grades are used by institutions to quickly evaluate people.  For example, a company with an entry level position might receive 300 applications for this job.  One simple way to filter these 300 candidates is to make a grade point average (GPA) mark and cut everyone who hits below that line.  This is needed since it is difficult and time consuming to evaluate all 300 people for a single position efficiently.

In many ways, we use grades as a quick indicator of how a person is performing in topic areas.  From a student perspective, grades are important since they impact what possibilities are available once completing a degree in particular for that first job.

Still important?

The odd thing with your GPA is it becomes almost irrelevant once you get your first job.  This is because your next job or promotion will be based on what experience you have at getting things done.  Or as I like to say, “Can you do things?”

The grade is a very poor measurement of your doing stuff ability.  However, if your job is taking tests, then it is a great indicator.

Going forward

So, yes, grades are important, but learning and doing is much more important for the long game.  The grade is a single measurement signal of how you have performed.  Going forward though, the portfolio is becoming  a more appropriate signal of your ability (and not just for artists).  In college, every major project you do, create, and build is a better signal that demonstrates what you can do.  This includes your activities outside traditional class and you should be curating a web presence to host this portfolio.

If your GPA is not as good as you need it to be, then not all is lost.  If you have a portfolio of what you can do, you can work your way into entry jobs at smaller and lesser (in the eyes of the public) institutions.  People who can learn and do things are valuable.  So, it’s not all about grades, but good grades tend to correlate to people who learn, work hard, and do things.  And that’s the chicken back to the graded egg.

Credits: photo titled: Eggs; by bunnicula

CollegeQandA asks: What are office hours?

The most underutilized resource at universities

Person sleeping in their office

Some professors have busy office hours filled with students, but most of us schedule office hours and have little to no contact with students unless there is a major exam, assignment, or activity that has an upcoming due date.

But, what are office hours?  The office hour(s) is a scheduled time by the professor where they guarantee that they will be in their office to be available to students and their concerns.  The main purpose is so students can ask questions about things that they either don’t understand or want a deeper understanding as related to a course.  However, most professors are happy to discuss ideas beyond the course including advising, careers, new ideas, etc.

I want to go, how should I prepare?

This depends on the professor, but most professors have a basic expectation if you are coming to ask additional questions or get help for topics in a course.  Note, the title above implies that you prepare for the office hour, and it should not be considered a time to redo a lecture.  You should do some preparation before you walk in and ask questions.  For example, imagine I have given you an assignment on topic X.  You should first try to do work on topic X, you should search out resources (such as textbooks, internet, etc.) to help you on topic X, and then when you are having problems you can bring what you have done working with topic X, and we can look at what you are doing well and what is missing to allow you to make further progress.  Don’t come in and just say, “How do I do this assignment?” or “I don’t get this?” without trying to learn on your own.

The same is true if you are going in for curriculum advice.  You should have some idea what you courses you need to do in the future, and your meeting should be spent on questions that you are unsure of instead of simply saying, “What courses should I take?”

Preparing for a meeting is, likely, part of your future job, and it shows that you respect both the person you are meeting with as well as your own time.

What if I don’t have questions about …?

You should go to office hours even if you don’t have direct questions related to the course or advising.  However, you should still prepare what you want to discuss before hand that is of real interest to you and is, likely, an interest of your professor.  This might be tricky since you are learning an area where the professor is a more experienced person in the topic.  Try open ended questions (the ones that can’t be answered yes/no) related to the course topics or your professors research since they may lead to interesting discussions.

Note, I suggest that visiting your professor is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.  Just because a professor has scheduled time to meet with students, don’t spend all of that time.  If you don’t have course or advising related questions, then an interesting discussion with a professor once or twice a semester would be good and not considered overbearing.

Credits: photo titled: Office Intern, by: Richard Elzey

CollegeQandA asks: Should I go to graduate school?

Who goes to graduate school?

Should I go to graduate school? This is an important question to consider as you complete your undergraduate and try to plan out your career. We will take a few perspectives on the whys and why nots.

Clock with 3 replaced by word career

Rarely just because

Many people who I’ve talked to about going to graduate school include the answer, “just because”.  I, probably, should be included in this camp, but my other reason for going to graduate school was that a professor a respected and listened to told me to go to graduate school.  I, obviously, had a great plan for my future.  The trick here is graduate school can:

  • Cost significant amounts of money
  • Costs more money in terms of lost opportunity cost
  • Takes time
  • Is not a guarantee of being completed successfully
  • Might not impact your life goals

The first piece to choosing to go or not to, is to have some sort of plan on where and what you want to do.

Let’s start with the Master’s degree

In most cases, a masters degree is a financial end career total earnings the best degree to get.  Still, that does not mean you should just do the degree.  Also, this is general advice on the Master’s degree and there are a tonnes of factors to consider depending on your individual case including current debt, area of study, job market, location in the world, school to attend, etc.

The masters degree is an opportunity to spend one to three years delving deeper into academics via courses, projects, and in some cases, a thesis.  This additional depth means that you will improve your ability to think and do, and people who can think and do better tend to get paid more if there is demand.

One other thing I noticed when I did my Master’s was that I got to tackle problems that I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to work on until 2-5 years into an industrial career.

Finally, I know many people who say they plan on doing their Master’s later.  This is possible, but in most cases getting paid and the prospect of doing a Master’s and being paid significantly less (if anything) is very tricky to do.

For the Ph.D. degree

In almost all cases, I think the main reason to pursue a Ph.D. degree is if you want to become a professor (or really think you want to become a professor).   I, highly, recommend you read The Professor is In before starting that degree to understand the nature of the faculty job world.  If you start with the basic idea that a Professor self-replicates by advising and creating Ph.D students, then you quickly see how a market with exponential growth doesn’t have positions for everyone in it and is competitive – Amazon.

If you have another reason to do a Ph.D, then as long as you see it as a means to get what you want then it is fine.  That is unless the reason is you want to be called Doctor; not worth the toil for such a title.

Credits: photo titled: Clock-career; by Flazingo Photos

CollegeQandA book review: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Book Review: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World is written by Valiant and is a deeply academic book investigating learning in relation to complexity theory (a field in computer science).  It’s not a book I would recommend to everyone since some of the technical aspects are challenging, but it’s ideas are fascinating and I would recommend that everyone reads it (= paradox).

The main premise of the book is to take learning algorithms and evolution and make an attempt to better formalize these ideas in the framework of complexity theory.   Valiant explains aspects of complexity theory, evolution, and learning in the book, but depending on your prior knowledge you might need to visit these ideas in a more introductory context.  Valiant classifies learning algorithms as “ecorithms”.

For me, the book has sparked the imagination on some new threads of learning, and that is the main reason I think this book is so interesting.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

As mentioned already, the book will be hard to read for some people.  I don’t think these ideas are targeted for a general audience, but I think the value in the book is it presents some fascinating ideas within a context that makes them more theoretically grounded.  For anyone interested in learning, I would include this book as part of the must read library.  Therefore, if there is aspects of learning  in the book then it relates to this blog, but the connection is much weaker than my typical book reviews.

I would recommend this book to…

People interested in technical aspects of learning with the caveat that the book may require some additional learning to understand some of the ideas.

CollegeQandA asks: How are professors trained to teach?

How are professors trained to teach?

An interesting question that not many undergraduates understand is: How are professors trained to teach?

Baby with glasses on

The secret is, most of us are not trained in any teaching.  Graduate degrees (Masters and Ph.Ds.) are degrees pursuing leading edge research and creative endeavors.  Many of your professors will have no formal training in education other than some basic courses.

Why do they have no training?

Many graduate schools around the world have programs that help train graduate students to teach.  Typically, new faculty will have orientation and additional programs/workshops to help them improve their classroom teaching.  In the end, with all this training a professor will have spent at most 20-40 hours of educational training.  Compare that time to a typical higher education class worth 3 credit hours.  Over 15 weeks, student’s will have had at least 45 hours of class time on the topic of the class.

So, professors will have some training in education, but in reality, the training is very limited, but the rest of the learning to teach is done (or not done) by ourselves.  The reason for this is that teaching training is not a priority within higher education.  Instead, there seems to be a mentality of I learned this way and this stuff, and therefore, my students can also learn this way and this stuff.  There’s not a huge problem with this mentality since for decades the model has worked, and people still get careers and work in their respective fields.

Is there a case for improvement?

As an engineer (not practicing), I’m not too crazy about my above argument.  One of my question is if professors are better teachers then, on average, will our students learn more?  I don’t have any direct research to answer this question.  I, at least, believe that universities could make some real attempt at testing this crazy question.  Many schools have taking a dedication to teaching and learning.  Is your school one?

Credits: photo titled: Professor Baby; by Quinn Dombrowski


CollegeQandA asks: Should I major in Engineering?

Should I major in Engineering?

Engineering BuildingShould I major in Engineering?  This is a specific question that I’m dealing with here, but one that I’m biased towards, and therefore, I have an opinion on.  The answer is yes.

I think engineering is a great major.  Student’s who complete this major have the capabilities to do and learn almost anything afterwards.  Getting the engineering degree, however, is a commitment that takes both significant time and effort.  In many ways, I feel like my undergraduate degree was harder than anything I have done and learned since (though improving my writing has been exceptionally hard).

What is Engineering?

This question should be asked and explored by every major where you replace engineering with your major.  In most cases, the answers are very broad since a major is a label for a vast area of human knowledge and exploration, but practitioners should be able to give you a sense of what a particular major is.

Broadly, engineering, which is sometimes called applied science, is solving problems (by designing a solution) with the use of techniques and knowledge from mathematics and science while constrained by financial and ethical realities.  The types of problems are broad coming from areas such as the health industry to the retail industry, but they have one common aspect.  These problems are our problems whether they be human desires or human challenges.

Most people living in the first world can look around the room they are in presently, and almost every item in that room has gone through stages of engineering problem solving to create the item cheaply, safely, efficiently, etc.  Look at the power outlet.  The screws, the face plate, the outlet, etc. were all designed by an engineer(s).

What do you study in an Engineering major?

Engineering is a broad category that is broken down into specializations such as mechanical, electrical, computer, and chemical engineering (to name a few).  Typically, these specializations are created when there is enough industrial and commercial demand that future engineers in those domains need a focused set of courses covering specific topics.  For example, there is not much difference between electrical and computer engineers, but because of the rise of the computer industry in the 80s and 90s we made the distinction.  However, engineers start all their majors dealing with common introductory topics such as calculus, algebra, probability, statistics, physics, chemistry, programming that apply to almost all engineering fields.

At most schools, the first two years of a major deal with these broad basics in mathematics, sciences, and communication (written and spoken).  In the second year, students will start learning about the basics of the domain they have chosen to major in and will start to see how some of the earlier learned basics are applied to some aspect of the domain.

The third and fourth years will cover more in depth topics as related to the field, but this is just a sample of what practicing engineers do, and even in a field such as electrical engineering a student will further specialize in an area such as communication, electronics, electromagnetics, photonics, power, etc.

The reality is an undergraduate engineering degree is a broad exposure to a field where that student is expected to apply science, math, and engineering design to solve problems.  This, typically, means that engineering has a doing portion where throughout their study, students will build artifacts and prototypes in the lab and in design courses.  However, there are so many careers that an engineer could take that even the senior courses are broad introductions to the specialities.

Why is it such a great major?

In my opinion, an engineering major pushes a person’s mind not only in how to design a working system that solves a problem, but solves that problem with an understanding/application of science and mathematics as tools.  In other words, the major will push your brain to grow in leaps and bounds each semester with challenging ideas that are both theoretical and practical.  At the the end of the degree, you are directly employable since you can build things to solve problems.  Still, you don’t have to be a practicing engineer since the skills learned can be applied to a vast range of problems and opportunities in all varieties of areas.  The degree is not to be taken lightly, but those of you who are committed and willing to work and learn hard will find the results very satisfying.

Credits: photo titled: engineering; by DaveBleasdale

CollegeQandA asks: What to do if you think you’re having mental health problems in school?

What if you think you’re having mental health challenges?

Statue in paris with face in palmI, recently, had the opportunity to do some training in helping/guiding students with potential mental health issues.  For one, I learned that I am not an expert in the area or expected to be one.  Second, both faculty and students do not have great knowledge in this topic, and we should all be trying to both be prepared to help people with mental health problems and lose some of our prejudices to the problems.  So, what to do if you think you’re having mental health problems in school?

What type of mental health issues might impact my schooling?

Depression and anxiety seem to be two of the most common health issues for college students (this website has some details on these), but just like the rest of the population, we are all susceptible to health problems regardless of who you are and how much we don’t think these issues will effect us.  There is a large variety of issues that college students will deal with in combination with entering and living in a challenging and high stress environment.  Health, both physical and mental, are a huge factor in learning effectively, and if you are having health problems, you need to deal with them as soon as possible.

Who can help?

As I said earlier, your faculty may have some training in this domain, but the large majority of us are not experienced in dealing with mental health.  Faculty are not experts in diagnosing, and they shouldn’t be diagnosing you even if you seek their advice.  However, faculty are an excellent front-line of trusted adults who should know where to guide you to find the expert help you need.  So, faculty are an okay resource to seek out.  Similarly, friends and family can help get you the expert help you need, but they again are not the experts.

My recommendation is to find out what your university has for student counseling services.  A quick search in google with your universities’ name and “student counseling” or “mental health” services will provide you with your first point of expert contact.  These centers and people are great starting points to find out what you are dealing with, and typically, some of these services will be free of charge (covered by your student fees).  Schedule an appointment or go visit the center to find out what the next steps are.

It’s not not normal

Finally, our society still does have a stigma around mental health problems though we are making progress.  Research suggests that mental health problems are as normal as other health problems, and if you suspect you are having problems, then you need to deal with them.  Just like a broken arm that you wouldn’t try to fix yourself, mental issues are not just solved by not dealing with them.

Credits: photo titled: Depressed In Paris…. by: Toni Birrer