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A frequent speaker and expert on engineering education, Geoffrey C. Orsak, Ph.D, is dean of the engineering school at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, TX. DN Editor-in-Chief John Dodge conducted the interview.
Q: Is there a crisis in engineering education?
Orsak: I don’t have any doubt engineering education is at a moment of truth. We’ve got to make a decision on what we’re going to be and how we’re going to best prepare kids. Most of engineering education is really a retrospective study, that is we’re looking back on the things that have been done. We’re not looking forward very much. I would consider that a crisis because kids will be operating in the economy of the future, not the past.
Q: Do you believe students are well-prepared coming out of the top engineering schools?
Orsak: I don’t think there’s any doubt that the kids are well-equipped to think and problem solve, but schools are overly focused on preparing kids for their first job. The question might be how well-prepared are students for a very uncertain and diverse future. That is a question that has not been studied very carefully and I would suspect we find the answers to be less than positive.
Q: How would you rate the quality of professors today?
Orsak: I would make the case we’ve got the best and worst in the world of teaching. We have not made the best classroom learning environment a priority. The last 30-40 years have been about differentiating engineering schools based on research strengths and research focus. Because of that, teaching has not gotten the attention it deserves. Now the costs are becoming more of a burden for the average family so they look to see that their son or daughter gets a good classroom experience, not that their professors get more or less famous.
Q: Is tenure good or bad?
Orsak: Let me use an old saying often attributed to Churchill (about democracy): “It’s the worst system out there except for all the others.” I wish people would take advantage of tenure more than they do. When we grant them tenure, we are giving them liberty to improve themselves in ways which we have not imagined. Tenure has not prevented the best faculty from being successful and it has not prevented us from eliminating with the worst faculty. It’s a bit of an antiquated notion, but it’s not going anywhere soon.
Q: Does research interfere with teaching?
Orsak: Well, ultimately, the university faculty has two primary roles, which are to expand the knowledge base and translate that to students. The need for faculty to push the boundaries of knowledge is absolutely critical. The question is can research become a distraction from teaching and is certainly the case for some. Generally, there is a widely held belief that some of the best researchers are the best teachers. That’s not because they are learning and creating new knowledge, but because they do everything well. They put a high standard on everything they attempt. Research can be distraction, but in general you are talking about the quality of the individual.
Q: How good are communications abilities and the English of foreign instructors?
Orsak: Some excel at it and some don’t. I’ve seen some faculty whose language skills are quite modest, but they are phenomenal at how they make everything simple for the student. They distill it down to the core ideas. People who are exceptional at English can struggle in the classroom. I know it’s easy to point a finger at foreign faculty and foreign graduate students teaching, but if we put more emphasis on helping people be quality teachers, language would be less of a barrier in the classroom.
Q: How would you rate overall teaching skills?
Orsak: Just because you spent 20 years in the classroom doesn’t mean you are prepared to step on the other side of the desk and teach. I wish universities and especially the great ones would make the training of teachers a higher priority. It simply is not the case and because of that, all of us suffer in our ability to hire faculty.
Orsak: In the post WWII economy, our focus was driven on ideas that drive the economy and we assumed an engineering degree was a rite of passage. Go back to that old chestnut as being a common badge of honor for engineering students: Look to the left, look to the right and only one of you will be here at the end of four years. We were focused on weeding students out, not on helping people learn. That’s changed now that there’s fewer students pursuing engineering degrees and there’s more competition for the best students across myriad disciplines. You see a lot more effort on retention of engineering students. Retention was not a word used much 30 years ago. There were many examples of graduating classes that were far less than half of the size of the incoming class. Even today, we have a hard time finding universities where greater than 50 percent of the incoming students ultimately graduate with an engineering degree.
Q: What’s the answer?
Orsak: We have to get back to basics, looking at the quality of the individuals and making sure they are excelling at teaching as they do on research. And we have to spend more time to make sure we are teaching the right materials [relevant to] dramatic and radical change in the world of engineering. I think the curriculum is behind the times and in many cases we hear that from our students, that they’re bored in the class because what they are doing in their spare time is far more sexy than what they are doing in the classroom. Prioritizing quality teaching will go a long way in attracting a new generation of great engineers.
Q: How does SMU evaluate its professors? Do you do anything unique?
Orsak: There are these anonymous student-to-student web sites like rateyourprofessors.com that help give advice. People who use those tend to be very disgruntled, but we do a very thorough evaluation. We send faculty observers into the classroom and when there appears to be an issue, we try to intervene as quickly as possible. One of the things holding us back from continuous improvements in teaching is we put faculty in classrooms and we do not evaluate the quality of that instructor until the course is complete. There’s no way the instructor can be getting feedback during the course to improve what he or she is doing while they are still teaching that same group of students. You end up having a group that leaves the class either thrilled with the instructor or very frustrated. In many cases, what frustrates students are little things. We need to find a way in which faculty gets constant feedback on their performance during the course of the semester that is tangible and useful. What is often the case are generic statements: They weren’t very good, they could not speak the language or they are only following the book. These give you an overall sense of the atmospherics in the room, but they don’t tell you what is going on. And we are not experts at evaluating high-quality teaching. It’s sad to say that but that’s an area which we have not developed. Like being a great wine taster, it takes a long time to do that.
Q: Is there a silver bullet?
Orsak: I don’t think so. It’s going to a generational shift. We will do that because cost is changing the relationship between the student and the university. The student is asking what am I getting for the money I am investing. That will require that administrators take the classroom experience much more seriously.
Q: What is the pressure to retain professors?
Orsak: You do have to pay handsomely. Generally, the higher compensated are those who excel at research more than teaching. Retention of those faculty is critical for overall ranking and intellectual climate of the school. As a dean, I worry when other universities are not attempting to recruit away our faculty. I worry they have not been recognized by their peer group as superior.
Q: How many engineering professors are there at SMU?
Orsak: We’ve got 60 (and 600 engineering undergrads and 1,000 graduate students).
Q: How many teach and how many are in research?
Orsak: They all do research and they all teach. We happen to be in a small collection of universities that puts a high threshold on quality teaching. That’s harder for bigger institutions to do. Being smaller, we can be a lot choosier about who we recruit and retain.
Q: Is there any engineering discipline that is more problematic than others when it comes to quality teaching?
Orsak: That’s a great question, but I hesitate to give you an answer. It’s hard to assess where good teaching occurs. The disciplines that have been less inclined to move their curriculum forward tend to get the worst reviews from the students. Those that are not modernizing themselves as part of the culture puts those disciplines at a disadvantage in terms of student evaluations.
Q: And those are?
Orsak [laughing]: I just can’t throw something out there because I’ll know you’ll use it and I’ll get hate mail. Let’s put it this way. There is no one discipline that we can point to and say this discipline has got it right and figured out. Every discipline needs help in the classroom.