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If you teach math or science and are interested in application problems or project-based learning, read on.  If you teach other subjects but are interested in what engineering can offer your students, read on too.  There are some great organizations and publications in the engineering world that might be of use to K-12 teachers, but sometimes the lack of an “engineering” course in high schools makes it harder to see the link than, say, between high school physics and university physics.

I’m always on the lookout for ways to bridge the gap between those worlds, as well as ways to strengthen understanding of how science and engineering are separate but complementary.  In light of that, here’s a bit of info about the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), for those who might like to check it out.  You don’t have to be an engineer to join, and most of their publications are written for a broad audience (reading level similar to Scientific American, not Nature).

K-12 Working Group and Annual Conference

The ASEE maintains a working group of K-12 educators and higher-ed faculty who develop resource materials and school programs.  The group puts on a workshop at the annual conference every year (I haven’t attended, but I hope to check it out).  The benefit I’ve found here is mostly meeting the people, not using the lesson plans (I found them a bit simpler than I was looking for) but your mileage may vary.

Prism Magazine

The ASEE’s monthly magazine, Prism, is a highly readable blend of technology news and educational practice.  The current issue’s topics include innovative course designs (Motorsports, Game Development, Engineering Disasters), snake-like robots, assistive technology for disabled athletes, and an article called “Scientist as Mad Artist: An engineering educator merges dissent and avant-garde design.”  My students and I regularly use this for project inspiration.

Journal of Engineering Education

This is the ASEE’s peer-reviewed international research journal.  I started writing this post today because an article in the latest edition caught my eye: “Problem-based Learning: Influence on Students’ Learning in an Electrical Engineering Course.”  Their results included that “participants’ learning gains from PBL were twice their gains from traditional lecture.  Even though students learned more from PBL, students thought they learned more from traditional lecture.  We discuss these findings and offer implications for faculty interested in implementing PBL.”  I was able to access the full text without logging in (let me know if the link doesn’t work).    Another interesting title in the table of contents is “Elementary School Students’ Conceptions of Engineering.”  Lots of food for thought.

If you check these out, let me know whether they’re useful.  I’m interested in your thoughts about what would encourage collaboration between K-12 and higher ed in engineering and technology fields.

A really interesting series of comments is happening over on Shawn Cornally’s blog Think Thank Thunk about teachers and students communicating through Facebook.

The central question seems to be:

Can my Facebook account model an appropriate way for my students to live in the online world?

At the same time, some of the themes that emerged seemed to imply (probably inadvertently) that

  • either a community trusts its teachers completely or distrusts them completely
  • either I friend students on Facebook or I can’t be a good model of online living
  • either I friend them on Facebook or I am a Luddite who shuns the entire online world (or, worse, I am hypocritically pretending to be one)
  • either I have a rapport with my students, or I don’t.  There might be different levels of rapport, but there aren’t any different kinds.
  • they make better decisions when I’m around; this is a good reason to friend students on Facebook
  • my online life and in-person life are inextricably linked; this is a good reason to friend students on Facebook
  • Facebook is strictly for socializing
  • nothing about Facebook is inherently social
  • including social media in the curriculum is inherently detrimental
  • including social media in the curriculum is not in any way detrimental

I hope this doesn’t come across as inflammatory to any of the comment authors. I can relate to most of these sentiments, including the contradictory ones. And I realize that people post simple statements in short blog comments that can’t be expected to tell the whole story.  At the same time, I think it’s worth digging into how we talk about social media in education, and whether our conclusions follow from our premises.

My point is that “online” isn’t a single place that we can make generalizations about, and we need to develop a much more robust language to discuss it.  Picking a path through the shifting ground of an emerging technology requires us to discern the subtle differences in the terrain.  I think this is in the spirit of Shawn’s opening paragraph where he writes that “searching for information has never been difficult for them but discernment is.”  Let’s be honest: it’s difficult for all of us.

This is going to get long, so I’m going to write first about some things that I think are red herrings.

Non-issue #1: The word “friend” is a smokescreen

Yes, but that’s not the problem.  Following someone’s feed on Facebook doesn’t have to be strictly social; it could be about business or philanthropy or whatever (see especially Facebook’s effect on the 2008 American primaries, or the recent Egyptian revolution).  Let’s stop calling them “friends” and start calling them “contacts.”  It doesn’t help us answer the central question.

Non-issue #2: Facebook ≠Online

Let’s be careful about talking as though Facebook is the only online space that matters, or is representative of the entire online world.  It confuses our debate.

Have you noticed that the strong feelings that come up around Facebook don’t seem to come up when we’re collaboratively editing a Wikipedia page, making a GoogleDoc, or even commenting on each others’ blogs? Not only is Facebook only one of the online interaction possibilities, it’s one that has a uniquely problematic model (Part 2 — coming soon).  Focusing on the content of Facebook’s status updates while ignoring its underlying structure is like solving a math problem without noticing that it’s about a nine-pound orange.  As with pseudocontext, this generalization can lead our thinking toward “bizarre unrealities” such as “Facebook is only about socializing” or “Facebook has nothing to do with socializing.”  My way of staying conscious of exactly which part of the online landscape I’m talking about is to spell Facebook and other tradenames with a capital letter — it reminds me that it is a registered mark owned by a corporation, not a generic label for an idea about society (that would be “social media”).  Use mine if it helps or make up your own reminder.

Non-issue #3: The problem is not the perception of inappropriateness or the threat of lawsuits

As educators, we not only have to do right; we also have to be seen to do right.  But that’s no truer online than it is offline.  This is a problem; but it is not the problem.

Non-issue #4: The problem is not just people’s preconceptions about social media, or inexperience, or lack or imagination, or technophobia

There are people who are uninformed about or afraid of social media, and there are those who just can’t imagine its usefulness in the classroom.  Obviously, no technology matches everyone’s teaching style.  Also, it’s easy to develop a knee-jerk reaction to nay-sayers, since explaining the difference between  Facebook and Twitter for the 92nd time can feel as exasperating as explaining that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are not the same as Aerosmith.  Not. At. All. Mom.  😉  These are not good reasons to assume there are no legitimate critiques.

Non-issue #5: Online communication is not inherently richer than offline

Online communication can be deep or shallow.  So can offline.  Even the process of integrating the online and offline parts of our lives is not inherently an enrichment.  This reminds me of debates about interactive whiteboards.  As with EIWBs, it’s worth asking “does the pedagogy demand it?”  And then being very careful with our answer.

Non-issue #6: Do I need to know about their breakups?

This is a perfectly legitimate question, but I don’t think it helps us figure out the answer to the central question.  Some questions I propose instead:

  • Do my students need me to know about their breakups?
  • Would my students benefit from a private space to discuss their breakups where they are not monitored by authority figures?
  • Do my students even notice that their breakup updates are going to their teachers?
  • How does this affect the kind of rapport we have, and how does that rapport affect their education?

Conclusion, Part 1

We owe it to ourselves and our students to critique communication technology.  That critique must be respectful, informed, and nuanced.  “Technology X is good/bad” or “they just don’t realize its potential” or “just trust me” are not going to cut it.  And we’d better learn to do it fast, because our students need to know how to critique it too.

Have you ever heard of the “smart grid”?  Our power grids are overloaded already, and our power needs keep increasing.  There are already rolling brownouts or massive failures happening in some places.  “Smart grid” technologies are a new way for power companies to sell and manage power, and for users to buy power, by monitoring how much is needed at what times and changing the price of power depending on heavy use.  For example, power is in high demand from 9-5, but much less in the middle of the night.  If power was cheaper at night, would people be motivated to run their dishwashers and clothes driers then?  What happens as more people buy electric cars: will the power grid be brought to its knees because everyone comes home at 5pm and plugs in their cars at the same time?

Smart grid meters and appliances are already being rolled out in Ontario and California.  They have great promise to help us control our power needs.  They do it by installing sensors in homes and businesses that monitor people’s use, collecting all of that information via computer networks, and adjusting either the supply of power or the cost of it.  The downside: smart-grid-enabled appliances are loaded with sensors that report to the power company.  They know how many showers you take, they know how often you run your furnace, and whether you’ve used the drier this week.  Will this lead to a more democratic sharing of resources, or a police-state of constant surveillance?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers has teamed up with a game design company called Foresight Engine to create a massively-multiplayer game to simulate the problem over the next few days.  You should play.  It’s free, and fascinating.  Read some background info or just try it.   Game play starts today at 1pm Atlantic (noon Eastern), but you can sign up now if you want.  You’ll find me in there as ShiftingPhases.  Good luck…