June 01, 2015

Metafoundry 37: Mechanical Oscillations in the Quantum Regime

Linkburst; day jobs and not-jobs.

COORDINATES: After a day trip to Washington DC earlier this week, at my kitchen table in Cambridge, having just come home and closed all the windows. It's dropped fully twenty degrees Celsius; yesterday it was hot and sunny, right now it's 9C and raining and the clouds are a heaped, tangled grey duvet under which it's still shivery-cold. Ah, early summer in New England.

LINKBURST: This week's obsessions seem to be borders and memories, flights and hidden geography (so about the usual, I guess). Dan Williams reported on his trip to the intercalated villages of Baarle-Hertog (in Belgium) and Baarle-Nassau (in the Netherlands), and here's a piece about visiting a practical exclave in the northern continental United States. Watching a barren new island in the Pacific become home to new life, and thinking about the iceberg houses in London Above and Below. Last weekend I went to Castle Island with a friend, which is my favourite place in Boston--a small, circular beach protected by a breakwater from which you can sometimes see seals cavorting in the harbour, adjacent to a site that's been continuously fortified since 1634 (currently occupied by a granite star fort built in the early 1800s), and served by a place that sells french fries to eat hot on a cold, windy beach. It also has a good view of a nearby power station, overlooks the container port, and is separated from Logan Airport by about half a kilometer of Atlantic channel (and is directly under takeoff and landing paths). We were there on the Sunday morning of a holiday weekend, so air traffic was light (and it was mostly domestic), but we talked about emerging challenges of aircraft separation given the A380's wake vortex. Finally, this essay on the Bayeux Embroidery (no, not tapestry) is an incredible extended meditation on war and memorials.

DAY JOBS AND NOT-JOBS: When I'm not writing this newsletter, I'm a professor at a small engineering college outside Boston. Today I welcomed twelve students, from across the US, to the summer program in engineering education research for undergraduates that I head up. This is the third year of the program, and I've realized that one of the most interesting elements of it is thinking about the learning experiences we create for them, within and yet outside of the formal higher education system.

Almost the first thing we need to explain to the students is that it is not a job; the money they get is a stipend, not a salary. Its purpose is to carve out the space and time for them to participate in the program, not to pay them for the work they do (both the National Science Foundation, which funds the program, and the Internal Revenue Service are absolutely clear on this point). The reason why they get stipends and not salaries is twofold: one, because the summer is intended to be a learning experience above all, and two, because it's basically impossible to do research to order. You can be directed to do specific research-related tasks, but actually exploring an area, being engaged, and coming up with insights is not something you can turn into a checklist, not least because if you could do that, it wouldn't be research. Research can pretty much only be done by people who are intrinsically motivated; that is, interested in and committed to what they're doing, and not just doing it because they have to. Most of the students have had jobs and all of them are familiar with doing assignments for class; none of them have had an experience like this. So start by trying to get this across to the students: "You are not minions. You are not workers. You are not robots. You're going to bring your whole heart and mind to what you do."

Despite its name, intrinsic motivation isn't something that you permanently possess; it arises from both who you are and the circumstances that you're in. So we need to really think hard about creating the conditions for students to be intrinsically motivated, which fortunately my colleagues and I do a lot of already, for both our research and our teaching. Briefly, there are three things needed to support intrinsic motivation: autonomy; purpose or meaning (which is often related to community); and the development of mastery. The purpose piece is probably the easiest for us: all the students are in the program because they care about engineering education (and most of them are in engineering school themselves--it's amazing to watch them take what they learn about other students as part of their research, and turn it into insights about themselves and their own experiences), and we work hard to foster a sense of community within the program. The mastery development piece--knowing that you're getting better at something--is where educators traditionally come in. In this case, it means providing them with some careful guidance and scaffolded learning experiences, so they can get entry points into or traction on their research project. It's incredibly demotivating to not know what you should be doing next (or at all) so, especially at the beginning, we spend a lot of time helping them figure out what their next steps should be--later on, they're better equipped to come up with them on their own. And laced through it all is autonomy; we mentor the students, but they are mostly expected to work with each other and on their own, and to figure out for themselves how and when and what they're doing. There are no timecards.

And here's the thing: by any reasonable metric, it works. We use a lot of the same strategies with Olin students, and engineering educators from other institutions often say to us, "Yes, but your students are really smart." We've now had two years of undergraduate research students, from all over the country, with a range of academic backgrounds and an even bigger range of GPAs, and they've come and spent a summer with us and done great research. The only (and admittedly) remarkable thing about them is that they are interested enough in engineering education research that they wanted to work with us (which is why we wanted to work with them). In ten weeks, a whole bunch of them have contributed enough to research projects that they're co-authors on papers presented at international conferences. And our evaluation data suggests that not only do they learn an enormous amount, they really enjoyed and appreciated the experience.

This summer is just starting, and I don't know how it'll turn out (and I know that we can always do better), but getting to work with these students and my colleagues to create these kinds of learning experiences is pretty damn great.

For more about motivation, I recommend this short talk by Dan Pink [10:48] as well as Edward Deci's short, accessible book Why We Do What We Do

Extreme lathing. [vid]