Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Relevance & Undergraduate Teaching

This semester I have developed a new understanding of the importance of relevance to undergraduate students, particularly freshmen.

To teach engineering ethics to freshmen students, we often turn to engineering disasters. These case studies often involve ethical problems that contributed to the disaster, such as the epic struggles between engineers and NASA managers over the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Those ethical problems, added to the spectacular stories of the disasters, usually make a compelling lesson.


A few days ago I prepared a lesson using the Teton Dam collapse as the primary case study. I prepared the case study and even found a great website with moment-by-moment pictures of the leak that turned into the collapse of the dam. I even found a picture that showed a tiny speck coming down from the top of the dam toward the leak – it was a bulldozer sent down in a futile effort to stop the leak. Moments later the leak opened into a huge hole, swallowing the bulldozer. I felt certain my students would be fascinated.


After I presented the case and the pictures, I expected questions (sometimes I find myself expecting applause for particularly great lessons) but I received mostly blank stares. One student from the back ventured, “Katrina?” With that one word, I suddenly understood. The Teton Dam collapsed in 1972. There is no good video of the event on YouTube. The collapse only killed 11 people and the flooding was not extensive. In their minds, not only was this disaster quite old, it was out of their personal experience range and was therefore not relevant. Katrina, on the other hand, they knew about. It was relevant because they witnessed it in 2005, when they were 13, and they felt the extent of the tragedy. It was relevant to them because it was huge in scope and garnered an international response.

These students were born in 1992. The Space Shuttle Challenger is not part of their experiential understanding. Neither is Three Mile Island, the Ford Pinto explosions, or Chernobyl. I know where I was when the Challenger exploded. The defining moment for these students is September 11. They were 9 years old and it was the first extraordinary event they witnessed that was not part of history, and now they will compare every event like this to their experience in 2001. These students understand why terrorism is now considered an emerging technology.
So the challenge is to make historical issues relevant. Just conveying the information, even with the addition of media, is not enough. Spectacular stories aren’t enough. We have to connect to their prior knowledge and experience so that they can create new experiences and new meanings.

I am learning this as I go, making mental notes to consider relevance before I deliver any lesson. I am reminding myself that just like them, I knew where I was when….it’s just that we know different events on different timetables, making relevance a factor.

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