Monday, November 7, 2011

Should university be fun, fun, fun!

There is an interesting (and somewhat depressing) article in the New York Times Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's just so darn hard). It discusses how in the US there is a big push to have more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates but even if many start these degrees they do not finish.
One contributing factor is that these courses are graded harder than humanities courses.
The article also discusses initiatives, particularly in engineering courses, to make the courses more "fun" and "relevant", especially via projects.
I think this is all commendable and valuable. However, I have a sneaking discomfort that people [students, faculty, and administrators] just don't want to face the painful reality that engineering and science education does involve a certain amount of tedious hard work and that ultimately a lot of jobs (in any field) just aren't that exciting or satisfying.
Or am I just a grumpy old man?

I thank my wife for bringing the article to my attention.


  1. In my experience, for courses with projects, I learn a lot more from the project than from the rest of the course. But that's just because courses with projects are taught terribly.

  2. Cool article.

    With my vere limitted teaching experience I'm already a grumpy old man about these things, so I think you're doing well.

    The article evokes mixed feelings for me. I did 2nd and 3rd year 6 credit point research projects and learnt, by far, the most in these. The latter was calculating response functions, which gave me a great leg-up in perturbation theory and, eventually, many particle theory. Further, there were a couple of exercise sets that I remember very fondly because they taught me a subject so thoroughly. I remember a very difficult classical mechanics assignment which, by the end of it, I felt I knew coordinate transformations very well. As a researcher, I find the most effective way to learn is to start a new project, not work through a text-book without an end goal in mind.

    These sorts of project (or close to it) experiences make me think that project-based learning is the most effective.

    I believe it could be argued that the industrial model of learning we so frequently adopt is no longer effective in our post-industrial society. But apart from anecdotal evidence, I don't know enough about this to comment further. Seems right though...

    All this being said, if you don't work hard you won't get there, whether it's boring lectures or exciting projects (as the article implied). Uni is (well, should be) hard work, and unless you pass through corrupt soft-marking policies, you shouldn't get through any course at uni without some measure of hard work, frustration, and even boredom... surely!

  3. Tony: I can embark on a project whenever I want. A project-based course just means the people running it don't actually teach anything.

  4. Hi t,

    Fair enough. I wasn't responding to anything you'd said, sorry if it sounded that way.

    That being said, I've had positive experiences of the teaching done in projects. Also, I'm pleased you can embark on a project whenever you want, that must be a nice feeling.