Looking back on my year of inquiry

It’s been 4 whole months since I wrote about my classroom, and I had fallen far behind long before that.  The short story is this: in September, I fell sideways into inquiry-based teaching. Since then,

  • I got a lot more honest with myself about how well my teaching actually works (ex: I do more pseudoteaching than I thought I did)
  • I fostered a classroom culture that was way more honest than in the past (by attributing authorship, letting student questions direct our activities, sharing results of regular class feedback, direct-teaching them how to respectfully disagree with the teacher, etc.  The increased honesty is where the hard lessons came from)
  • I learned that teaching 5 preps in five months, using an educational approach that I hadn’t anticipated, makes me so sleep-deprived that I am incapable of synthesizing my thoughts into readable blog posts
  • I changed my mind about a bunch of things (ex: I used to think that any student who attends class, works hard, and uses the resources available to them will complete the program.  Hold the tomatoes.)
  • I noticed a bunch of things that I hadn’t realized I didn’t know (ex: I’m not sure exactly what I want my students to capture in their class notes; there are some shop activities where I’m not completely sure what question I intend for them to answer).

It was uncomfortable and sometimes I couldn’t tell if I was “doing it right.”  In other words, I practiced what I preached.  I spent a lot of sleepless Sunday nights, worrying that I wasn’t good enough to pull this off and that I’d mess up my students’ minds, or at least their careers. (I eventually figured out how to judge that my skills, though imperfect, are up to the task.  That’s a post for another day.) Last week, my second-year students came back from work-terms with glowing reviews.  The employers wrote specifically about students’ discernment in asking significant question without needing continual reassurance, their competence in tackling unfamiliar tasks, their ability to make sense of technical text. The 2nd-year students reported feeling confident and well-prepared.  I got a visit in my office from a student who had been a vocal critic of my increasingly “weird” teaching.  He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and told me that he appreciated how well the tasks he performed in class reflected the industry.  He has just aced the employer’s entrance test on the first try. The 1st-year students did well on their final project (an FM transmitter), becoming increasingly self-directed in developing test procedures, troubleshooting systematically, and recording their results (including migrating their lab notes from paper to Excel and Visio).  Their feedback is positive and constructive.  Here are their thoughts on what’s working well:

  • “The teaching aspects that are new to me.”
  • “Very dedicated teachings from an involved and thorough instructor.”
  • “Learning new concepts”
  • “Everything.”
  • “The skill sheets”

The only suggestion about what to change (other than “nothing”) was the balance between theory and shop time.  I agree.  In the last 5 weeks, I collapsed back into lecture mode, mostly because I was tired and couldn’t figure out what to do instead.  I have ideas for next year. So this post is my way of saying hello, and keeping track of some things I plan to write about next.  In response to some long-ago requests, I’m working on posts about

  • an example of a measurement cycle, including how I chose the questions, why they arose in the first place, and how students investigated them
  • an example of a research cycle, including topics students presented and topics I presented
  • an example of how I assessed students’ critical thinking skills, including drafts of students’ writing and the kinds of feedback I gave

There are lots of other things in the hopper but I probably need to do these first for other topics to make sense.  If you notice something that I’ve left out or skipped over, your suggestions would be very welcome, as I try to organize this into a coherent story.


  1. I’m very interested in reading about your experiences and getting your advice. It looks probable that I’ll be designing a new course over the summer with a co-instructor and teaching it in the winter with him. The course is tentatively titled “Circuits with applications to bioengineering”, but that is subject to change. The idea is to provide a more applied version of the circuits course for bioengineering majors. I’ve never even taken a circuits course (though I’ve learned a little self-taught), and my role will mainly be to come up with good lab exercises that will appeal to bioengineers.

    I think that motivating these students will be more like your classes than like the grad bioinformatics classes I’ve been teaching lately, so I plan to read your posts carefully.

    Incidentally, any ideas for bio-related lab projects for a first circuits class?

    • Wow — the new course sounds intriguing. When you say “bioengineering,” I’m inferring something more along the lines of “building prostheses” than “modelling the spread of disease” — let me know if I’m in the wrong ballpark. Do you expect your incoming students to already understand the distinction between current and voltage, or will you be starting from scratch with E&M concepts?

      Making sense of what exactly meters/scopes are telling you can be one of the hardest parts of learning about circuits — especially if students must be able to troubleshoot things that go wrong (rather than simply taking confirmation measurements of things that go right). This year I spent much longer than usual helping students think through the meaning of measurements, and it paid off in sensible troubleshooting (like recognizing a context in which resistance of wire can no longer be ignored, or understanding why a voltmeter gave nonsense measurements across a 10M resistor). The other thing that causes a lot of headaches is making sense of conventional vs. electron flow, especially as it relates to the meaning of “ground” or negative voltage supplies.

      I’ll keep my eyes open for bio-related projects. Take a look at these, for calibration purposes. I haven’t tried them, so I can’t vouch for them, but they look interesting. Are they relevant to your purposes? Is the level of difficulty appropriate?

      Here’s a DIY heart-rate monitor from Make. The packaging is goofy but you get the idea.

      Here’s a DIY conductivity sensor. It could possibly be used to infer pH, salinity, or other measurements of contamination in a fluid. It introduces the concepts of oscillators, amplifiers, and a/d conversion.

      Looking forward to reading more as the course develops.

      • The students will probably have had a physics course (it is required for the major, so we can make it a prereq), but experience in the past indicates that students can pass physics E&M classes and still be totally clueless about voltage, current, resistance, and capacitance, so we’ll probably reteach those (albeit quickly).

        We don’t do mechanical engineering here, so prosthesis is not the main focus. Students go mostly into biomolecular engineering (which relies more on molecular biology and biochem), but some do some assistive devices and robotics. There was supposed to be a bioelectronics track, but the faculty member hired to create that course left after several years of putting off its creation.

        Thanks to the pointers for the heart-rate monitor and conductivity sensor. I’d planned on doing an EKG or EMG lab, but I’d not thought of doing a conductivity sensor. We could do one either as simple chemical probe (for salinity, for example) or as a skin-resistance meter. It would tie in well to some of the research projects that measure current through nanopores or nanopipettes.

      • Ah, I see that the heart-rate monitor uses a light sensor and an LED, and that most of the work is done in software. We’re envisioning this as a circuits class, so the pulse sensor may not be the best way to go. Still, it is nice to know of an off-the-shelf optical pulse sensor, even if it is $20.

  2. I’m so glad that you’re seeing the results of your and your students work in class play out in their work-terms. I wonder how teachers of younger grade levels can get as immediate real world feedback.

    • Good point about the immediate feedback. I guess standardized tests are supposed to provide that feedback — although they seem to suffer from a lack of clarity as to what they are supposed to measure (let alone whether they measure that with any validity).

      One of the great benefits of teaching in a trade school is that it is supremely clear what our goal is: to prepare students for a particular trade. Both K-12 and universities seem to be struggling to define which of many worthwhile goals they should proritize, which makes it hard to measure whether they have reached them.

  3. Yay for going through an uncertain and challenging time, but sticking with it, and coming out for the better on the other side! I like these sorts of happy ending stories. Congrats!


    • *grin* Thanks, Sam. I’m glad the ending turned out happy. There were a few months when I really wasn’t sure that would be the case. I’m still amazed at how much more confident and less anxious I felt two years ago, when my teaching was demonstrably weaker. Don’t worry, the confidence is back and the (unreasonable) anxiety is gone. But it’s been an interesting lesson to me about why not all teachers are chomping at the bit to dive into this pool.

  4. Mylene,

    You mentioned “I used to think that any student who attends class, works hard, and uses the resources available to them will complete the program.” Does this mean that with your old structure some students were making it through the program that really shouldn’t have or that with all the extra stuff going on in your class, there are now some students that can’t show enough competency across everything you are now doing to complete the program?

  5. Hi Joss, it’s certainly true that when I was teaching with lectures and long problem sets, I sometimes thought students understood the basic ideas when they didn’t. So I guess I don’t exactly see what I’m doing as “extra.” I always expected my students to reason from evidence, evaluate ideas for consistency, distinguish between inferences that are likely and those that are outlandish. I even assessed them on it. I just didn’t teach it. I thought they already knew how to do those things — or at least, that all they needed was content knowledge in order to do them.

    I’ve never met a student who I could conclusively tell was incapable of finishing the program. But I have certainly met students who worked hard and used the available resources to the best of their ability, who couldn’t complete a 15-week course in 15 weeks. Maybe if they had taken the program part-time, or taken some prep courses first, or not worked part-time, it would have worked out — I have no way to tell.

    That was probably true in the drill-and-kill incarnation of my teaching too — but I suspect it was true less often. All other things being equal, a hard-working student can cram faster than they can understand.

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