Transforming Identities by Teaching the Basics

Regina Murphy -- image credit: COE portraits Sometimes, important teaching insights bring us back to basics - in this case, core classroom dynamics. Especially in introductory courses, Regina Murphy, professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, believes that "one of the most important things that you can do is to help the students feel really safe in the classroom."

Murphy characterizes the primary purpose of her introductory course, CBE 250 (Process Synthesis), which is the first class that CBE students take in their major, as "helping students to start thinking like engineers."

"They aren't really thinking like engineers yet, because they don't know yet if they're going to enjoy being chemical engineers, or be successful in this field. In the intro classes, over the course of the 15 weeks, they change so much in their thinking because they're so new to the discipline," she points out.

Much of this change in thinking, Murphy believes, is a result of a significant focus on active problem-solving - how to approach and understand problems as chemical engineers do:

"In my class, there's relatively little of what you might call content, but a lot of strategies and skills. They learn how to use the equations, the mass and energy balances, that will allow them to solve more real-world problems, and they learn how to take a problem and break it down and get enough information to do the calculations. They learn strategies for approaching problems."

This shift in skills and strategies is central to thinking like an engineer, and marks the very beginning of the identity transformation from undergraduate student to fully-fledged engineer. Making these new skills their own can be challenging for new students (in any discipline or profession), Murphy points out. She emphasizes how important it is for students to become comfortable in their new identity.

"Most of them want to be chemical engineers, or they think that they do, so the introductory courses can help them figure out if it's the right thing for them. A big part of my job is to get them a sense of what real practicing engineers might do. I try to bring in a variety of different problems that are based in different industries, to hopefully give a sense of how what they're learning would fit into research or manufacturing or design," says Murphy.

But the job of introductory classes is not only to expose the students to engineering concepts, Murphy stresses. "They're really enthusiastic, but also really nervous when they start off. They don't even know the people in their classes yet... so I feel good if they are talking to each other after a few weeks. I think that helps them feel like they can ask questions, like they can talk in class and it will be okay."

In response, she typically incorporates discussion and small-group problem-solving into her lectures whenever possible, encouraging students to form groups and meet new people while learning from each other.

"Often I give them small problems to work in class for a few minutes, and then we talk about the solutions. Sometimes it'll be a bigger problem where I'll have them work on it for half an hour or so, in class, and then we discuss in groups. This semester, I even tried a Survivor game. I divided the students into tribes, and then they competed to solve the problems and voted on the best solutions... It was something crazy and different at the end of a long winter, and they really liked competing and watching each other compete," she says.

Murphy likes to make sure that the students get to know her, too, pointing out that her students notice and respect the ways in which she makes her class not only fun and interesting, but also consistent and predictable - a structure in which they feel safe learning a new discipline and a new way to think.

"I think that when you're spending time with them, going through simple problems, you're also at their level, figuring out what they know and they don't know. That's really important. Returning homework fast, too, and responding when they have questions - these things just show that you care, and that you're respectful of them. It's really basic stuff but I think it makes a huge difference."


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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) Margolis, J. & Fisher, A. (2001). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Boston, MA: MIT Press. (See here for the Google Book preview. See here or here for a fuller discussion and review.)

This book focuses on the experiences of women students in the computer science department of a large university, why they often changed majors, and how the university began to make efforts to retain them in the program. Even though the book is a gender studies book, it includes many insights on and lessons about the environments in which all students learn, and how the students may be affected negatively by the presence of extreme pressure or cut-throat competition in classrooms.

2) L.A. Lee, L.E. Hansen, D.M. Wilson, "The Impact of Affective and Relational Factors on Classroom Experience and Career Outlook among First-year Engineering Undergraduates," FIE, pp. 15-19, Proceedings. Frontiers in Education. 36th Annual Conference, 2006. (See here for full abstract or here for the direct download (PDF) link.)

This piece examines the experiences of first-year undergraduate students in engineering, and the factors that lead them to feel good about themselves as students and as future engineers. The paper initially posits that high affect (feeling good about themselves) and good relationships with others are correlated with positive classroom experiences, and that these positive classroom experiences lead students to be more likely to want to pursue engineering as a career. All three hypotheses are shown to be confirmed in the study.