Practitioner Academics and the Lessons they have for Us

I used to love mathematics in high school. In fact, I lived and breathed mathematics. Everyone knew I was the go-to person whenever a mathematics question got too difficult. Then I went to engineering school, and everything changed. By the end of two years of rigorous engineering mathematics, all that remained was a loathing for mathematics and everything engineering. I was on my way out of engineering. Then I got taught by a highly experienced practitioner academic who loved his subject and who cared a lot about students and how they learn.

 In this article I go down memory lane to identify some of the key lessons that we need to learn from practitioner academics. I also draw from the experiences of a Stanford University alumnus to highlight the impact that good teaching can have on individuals and on society.

Engineer van Olst’s Electromagnetics Class at the University of Zimbabwe

I signed up for an option in electromagnetics in my third year at university. The course was taught by Engineer van Olst, then a 70-something retired engineer. He had seen service during World War II as a radar and communications expert, and his approach to teaching was like no other. I can only describe it as an immersive experience into the world of electromagnetics and microwave engineering.

Armed only with his walking cane, a slide rule, and pieces of chalk, van Olst drew us into the subject of electromagnetics, clearly explaining all the underlying mathematics behind the theory, and challenging us to use our prior knowledge of mathematics and earlier engineering courses to propose solutions to the problems that he posed along the way. Unlike the textbooks, he believed in the concept of “less is more”, and only introduced new concepts as and when they were needed. His teaching approach was a form of “lean” education which took us from a place of novice ignorance to a place of confident mastery in the basics of microwave engineering.  By the time the course ended, he had successfully turned us into budding engineers eager to go out and take on the world.

Engineer van Olst was a by-product of his generation. He hated calculators and computers, and was addicted to the slide rule. In place of mindless number-crunching, he taught us to think in an engineering sense. This included teaching us to use systematic estimation procedures and mental visualisations to arrive at tentative solutions. By the end, when I looked at a vector calculus equation, I could actually visualise its behaviour in 3 dimensional space, and in no time I was devouring the mathematics lecture notes that I had once loathed.  Through a passion for his practice, and a keen awareness of student needs, he restored my confidence in both mathematics and engineering, and gave me the necessary boost to take me through the engineering programme.

His approach to teaching opened up my eyes to the creativity and innovation opportunities inherent in engineering. His was not just teaching, it was an immersive apprenticeship into engineering, and to this day I’m glad I took his course. And this is  one reason why practitioner academics are famed for all over the world. They are adept at taking their practical and theoretical knowledge of engineering, infusing it with their keen awareness of student learning, and inspiring students to levels of competence that they never dreamed of. They are adept at turning demotivated and discouraged students into innovative and creative engineers who are ready and well-equipped to take on the world. They love their subject, and they love their students, period. They don’t deliver lectures; they provide immersive learning experiences.

Ed Clarke and the Smart Design Class at Stanford

Ed Clarke is another example of a practitioner academic. He runs the Smart Design class at Stanford University. According to one of his former students interviewed by Tony Wagner in his book entitled Creating Innovators: The making of young people who will change the world, Ed Clarke was simply the “best teacher at Stanford,” and his classes were “seminal points of his college education.” In the same interview the student makes this critical observation:

His class was about how to build stuff, nothing truly academic about it, but he creates more value than the research guys. Name any significant company in Silicon Valley, and in two degrees of separation you’d find your way back to his program at Stanford – Tesla Motors, many people from the Apple team, the list goes on and on – all people who are driving product creation in the valley.

Of course, this doesn’t exactly mean that research is overvalued in universities. It simply means that the impact of a good engineering teacher has a more far-reaching impact on the economy than what is generally assumed. Going by the student’s assessment, it is not inconceivable to assume that Ed Clarke’s impact on Silicon Valley, the United States, and all the other countries directly and indirectly linked to Silicon Valley technological companies runs into billions of dollars.

The University of Bath Electrical Power Systems by Distance Learning Programme

Closer to home, the teaching team on the Electrical Power Systems by Distance Learning programme run by the University of Bath is another example where practitioner academics have had an enduring world-wide impact. Established over twenty year ago, this programme relies on a core group of practitioner academics with solid experience in the Electrical Power Systems sector, and who have a passion for teaching. Over the entire twenty-year period, the programme was advertised primarily through word of mouth, and enrolment grew from year to year. In my own reckoning, at its height in 2010- 2012, this programme was arguably the biggest M.Sc. programme in Electrical Power Systems in the whole world.

The teaching team personally developed all the teaching material, and during my tenure with the team, I often challenged students to show me any textbook that did a better job at explaining key power systems concepts than the material. These study materials, and the general approach to teaching are based on a “less is more” lean education approach that is very similar to the one used by Engineer van Olst in my student days.

The programme has a residential component, where students engage face to face with the teaching team. These residentials are not just teaching components. They are more like Electrical Power Systems festivals where students and staff enthusiastically engage face to face to explore the field.  Students only need to attend one residential over the entire course of study, but most end up attending every year. Indeed, the teaching staff have successfully turned these essentially remedial teaching residentials into opportunities for immersive learning experiences.

Student projects constitute another high point for the programme. Student projects range from the practice-based to the highly innovative research-based.  They draw from the practical expertise of both the students and staff, and also from the ongoing research at Bath. These projects are not just the mundane projects typically found on other programmes. Rather, they are a by-word for staff-student cooperation, passion, creativity, innovation and inspiration. It is no wonder that graduates from this programme are highly valued by employers and on graduate research programmes.

Concluding Remarks

These vignettes that I have described in this article lead me to the following conclusions:

  1. Teaching in engineering should be context driven. Theory and practice should be woven together with the aim of teaching being to take the students to a higher level of understanding and practical engagement with the subject.
  2. Effective teaching in engineering is inherently activity based, even in a classroom where the only technology is a chalkboard. Students should actively engage in problem solving as part of the learning process.
  3. Although completing the syllabus is important, the prime goal for teaching in engineering should be on developing student competence and expertise in a particular area.
  4. Successful teaching in engineering is inherently a multi-dimensional interpersonal process. Students should engage with the teacher; the teacher should engage with the students; and students should engage with each other.
  5. Effective teaching in engineering is a highly emotive activity where both the teacher and the students should be emotionally involved.

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