Olin College of Engineering

I don’t know if I mentioned that I’m teaching Engineering Entrepreneurship at Olin. What a cool school! While the two course have existed at Olin, I was asked to re-invent them so to a great extent they are new.

Here’s a blurb that appeared in the Boston Globe today that illustrates how different Olin is from many other colleges. It describes a course called “Engineering for Humanity”:

“Created by Olin professors Caitrin Lynch, who teaches anthropology, and Lynn Andrea Stein, who specializes in computer and cognitive science, the course is in its third year with funding from a Healthy Aging grant from the MetroWest Health Foundation in Framingham. While Olin previously partnered with the Needham and Wellesley councils on aging, this year’s class involves seniors affiliated with the Natick Council on Aging.” (from Boston Globe)


Sage on the e-stage?

There are fascinating shifts going on in higher education today, from MOOCs to the ‘flipped classroom’. A lot of action. I think we are looking at another text-book “Innovator’s Dilemma” scenario playing out:

The established players (traditional universities), aware of a new way of delivering their offer, but seeing that it doesn’t meet the needs of their customer’s as well as the old way. And the upstarts (udemy and others), the disruptors, applying and refining the use of the technology in niche markets, eventually perfecting it to the point that they can blow by the laggards, and leave them in the dust. Textbook!

Check out today’s New York Times:

“Institutions of higher learning must move, as the historian Walter Russell Mead puts it, from a model of “time served” to a model of “stuff learned.” Because increasingly the world does not care what you know. Everything is on Google. The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know.” (from New York Times: The Professor’s Big Stage)

Teaching at Olin College next year

College photo 10842 130x0I’m excited to tell you that I just accepted a position as Visiting Lecturer at Olin College for Spring 2013! Actually the full name is Olin College of Engineering.

Olin is a small engineering college, actually in the top ten of engineering colleges according to US News’ Rankings. Olin is a very young college: it just celebrated its 10th year! 

I’ll be teaching Entrepreneurship in a course called “The Tech Startup” (at least I think that will be the name of the course.) 

As you might know, I was teaching at Brandeis University over the last three years. The course I taught at Brandeis  was more computer science oriented, aimed at getting the students the experience and helping them gain the skills to build software products in a way that looks like the real world.

At Olin the focus will be on the broader topic of how engineers should think about startups, how to come up with products that have a chance at selling, making sure they match what customers want and are willing to pay for. I

am still nailing down the details of the curriculum but it’s very exciting to have this opportunity and I am totally psyched about it!

Selling course notes: a market solution

Should it be ok for students to take notes during a class and turn them into a marketable product that they make money on?

If I am teaching the same class again this year, students could buy the course notes and potentially do better, or learn more. That’s a good thing, right?

However is it fair to me? After all these students are becoming multi-millionaires by reselling my work, my intellectual property. Yeah right.

One professor has an amusing solution to this dilemma, but I think it still misses the point;

Precisely. Besides which, I’ve figured out a much more fun solution to the problem: I’m going to buy some of these note sets and outlines being sold for my classes. I’ll go through them and find all the mistakes. And then I’ll write exam questions testing on those very same mistakes. If we all did that, the market would dry up pretty quick. (from Professor Bainbridge.com)

Teaching: Group Projects

I’ve had occasion as you know to teach a few times at Brandeis University. The courses were in Web Development, Mobile Development and Game Development. A major component was a Product Incubator where students worked in teams to develop a product. The organizational and logistical questions as well as the dynamics around team work were significant and challenging.

In my mind the overall benefit of team student projects are:

  • students must show mastery of the material to do well
  • it is more fun and rewarding for the students
  • team work is a fundamental aspect of whatever they will do in the future
  • the teachers are around to help steer and guide each team as appropriate

So far so good. Now, Students reported that working on the projects in team was definitely rewarding and effective. But certain students also found them frustrating in these ways:

  • how students were divided up into teams
  • variety of levels of knowledge or skill
  • variety in commitment or dedication
  • grading is not perceived as fair because everyone on the team gets the same one

Here’s an article that writes about How to Fix Group Projects, and suggests ways to make experiential courses like this more effective. It suggests an interesting scheme for forming the teams and also making grading more individualized.

He concludes, somewhat depressingly, saying that he’s not going to try this himself because all he would get is complaints from the students and bad student reviews.

What do you think of this approach?

Instead of giving out grades in a class, give out experience points

If you watched (or didn’t) the preceding video by Jesse Schell you might have caught one throw away idea mentioned that really intrigued me: Eliminate grades and instead adopt a system modeled more like experience points in a game. The idea he mentions I believe came from a Professor Lee Sheldon. Here’s the link to his course, Gaming the Classroom.

In my teaching at Brandeis, deciding how to handle grading is one of the trickier problems to solve. While my experience teaching so far is quite limited I have come to believe you need to be aware that your students’ expectations about what ‘counts’ towards the grade will heavily influence their behavior.

Whether you like it our not that which they feel will help their grade they will do more of and less of the latter. Yeah I would say that they are sincerely there to learn and do their best given all the circumstances. But it’s human nature: when it’s 2am and they need to decide whether to tackle the final homework, go to sleep or go to a party, you can bet that somewhere in the back of their mind is the impact they believe it will have on the grade.

So, what might this new scheme look like?

  • All activities that occur during the term can potentially gain a student experience points. Start simple:

    • Show up on time: 1 point
    • Show up on time for a week stretch: 5 points
    • Ask a question: 1 point
    • Answer a question: 1 point

  • Homeworks can give you points too:

    • Hand in your homework on time: 3 points. down to 2, 1 and 0 if it’s late by 1, 2 or 3 days
    • Quality of the homework can gain you between 0 and 10 points

  • Let’s say that your course has an element of team work

    • Every week, each member of a team gets 5 points that they can award to one or more teammates for contributing to the project
    • For every team delivery that’s on time, each member of the team gets 2 points

  • Each student’s total points is posted electronically every day on a leader board
  • A student or a team can ‘level up’ by making a certain number of points
  • Each level comes with certain privileges
  • And at the end of the term, your ‘grade’ is a simple, predefined formula based on your points

How is this different from what I did before?

  • It’s more granular. Each small event becomes converted into a standardized fungible unit, a point
  • It’s granular chronologically too. You know day to day how you are scoring
  • It’s more fun and introduces an element of competition, prestige and pride into the experience
  • It’s public yet doesn’t reveal too much.

It does have problems though:

  • The student who is not doing well is publicly exposed. This is probably a bad idea, and, it might even be unethical or illegal.
  • You need to be very careful about how you set up the points because, referring back to my original point, it will modify behavior and you will ‘get exactly what you are paying for’ which might not actually be what you want.

Anyway, it was an inspired idea. Not sure if it’s practical but it does make me think…