Karl Smith: Engineering education through an educational psychology lens

Karl SmithKarl A. Smith has been at the University of Minnesota since 1972. He retired from Civil Engineering in 2011 and currently has a part-time appointment in the STEM Education Research Center. In 2006, he joined the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, where he helped start the doctoral program in Engineering Education. He first became interested in engineering education research while teaching an undergraduate course and pursued a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He has served as PI or co-PI on numerous NSF grants, workshops, centers, and projects; conducts workshops on cooperative learning for faculty; and has published eight books.

The profile below was authored by Chelsea Andrews, Tufts University, based on an interview with Dr. Smith in 2014.

Dr. Karl A. Smith
Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor and Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering, University of Minnesota
Cooperative Learning Professor, School of Engineering Education, Purdue University

Ph.D., Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota, 1980
M.S., Metallurgical Engineering, Michigan Technological University, 1972
B.S., Metallurgical Engineering, Michigan Technological University, 1969

A serendipitous career path

Serendipity played such a big role in much of my life. Just when I was not liking what I was being asked to do in my engineering job after college, I ran into a former professor who said, “Well, why don’t you go to graduate school?” I had never even thought about that, but when I learned there was a fellowship that would pay for me to go, I quit my job and went to graduate school. After graduate school I took a job in a materials processing research lab at the University of Minnesota, but I planned to spend a year or so and then go back to the private sector. I really enjoyed the research and was successful at it, but then there were some changes, and I was assigned to teach a third-year undergraduate course. I approached teaching that course doing the only thing I knew: I lectured, I assigned homework, and I gave exams. iIt was all I’d ever seen, and it didn’t work very well. But I had this sense that there had to be a better way than what I was doing. I started taking courses in the evening in the College of Education, which was right across the street from the research lab where I worked. I was just fascinated by it, which is what led me to pursue a Ph.D. in educational psychology, studying the role of controversy in cooperative learning groups.

Serendipity played such a big role in much of my life.  About ten years later, the University of Minnesota shut down the research center I was at, so I decided to do something else at Minnesota, in part because my family didn’t want to leave Minneapolis. So I went to Civil Engineering to develop a first-year course, How to Model It: Building Models to Solve Engineering Problems; teach engineering systems; and create a project management course. During that transition, I made the shift to focus more on engineering education research.

Bringing an educational psychology perspective to engineering education

My preparation in educational psychology really developed a different kind of a mindset for me. From the earliest days, the pieces I contributed at conferences always came with data, and they were grounded in a theoretical framework. This was very different from what most people were doing in the 1970s, where the common thing was, “I tried this in my class, and students liked it,” with some kind of student self-report survey as the evidence that was provided. There was little or nothing about what kind of difference it made in students’ learning or their depth of understanding. So I think others were appreciative of my approach and my work.

It still gives me shivers, because it was this “eureka” experience. The education course that had the biggest influence on me was on the social psychology of learning. In that course, for the first time, I was assigned to a team, and the ideas of interdependence and accountability were emphasized. It still gives me shivers, because it was this “eureka” experience. I thought, “Gee, this is the way I worked as an engineer on the job, it’s the way I work as an engineer in research. We take on these big problems, we’re interdependent, we each do a different part, we have to take responsibility.” So I asked the question, “Why wouldn’t one do this with undergraduate engineering students?” I started working with David and Roger Johnson, who developed the Johnson and Johnson conceptual cooperative learning model, and I brought it to post-secondary engineering. Among the engineering education folk, it was eagerly embraced, because it came with a theoretical framework and a lot of empirical support.

What is it that engineers do, what’s the nature of the work, and what are we preparing them for?  Something I’ve harped on for 40 years is making the connections between what it is that engineers do, the nature of the work, and what we are preparing them for. Some engineering and science faculty mainly think of themselves as preparing students to go to graduate school. But think about what proportion of the over 2,000 first-year engineering students at Purdue would wind up as professors in a place like Purdue: at most a handful. And yes, we want people to be graduate-school ready, but we also want them to be ready to do other things.

Teaching professors and future professors to build courses around big ideas

When I’ve redesigned courses, I’ve really tried to work on the big concepts—to help students master the big ideas and not get lost in all of the minutiae. Many professors who already know the discipline well understand the big ideas at the heart of the discipline but have difficulty articulating them for students.

Where are the big ideas? What’s at the heart of the discipline? Ruth Streveler and I developed an engineering education foundation Ph.D. course at Purdue called Content, Assessment, and Pedagogy: An integrated engineering design approach (“CAP” for short). In that course, each student identifies an introductory course that they would like to teach at some point in the future and that they know really well—either they’ve taught or TAed in it before or they’ve had many courses in it. Then they completely redesign it, starting with outcomes. We ask them to think about, What are the big ideas? What’s at the heart of the discipline? What are the “enduring outcomes”—that is, what are the three or four things that you would be embarrassed if, on the job or during a master’s oral, somebody didn’t know? Often, for those who already know the discipline, it’s really hard to say what the big ideas are. Really focus on those and make sure that they get it. And then there are the things that are important to know, and maybe, if there’s time, things that are nice to know. And then once you’ve identified the big ideas, the next step is aligning that with assessment—that is, what evidence is needed to convince employers, accreditors, etc., that the outcomes have been achieved. Then the third step is a “purpose-driven pedagogy,” or, what instruction are you going to use given that now you have a fairly clear idea what it is you want your students to know and be able to do, and what evidence you need? What’s most likely to move students from where they come in to where you’d like them to be?

Where we need to do better

People are using clickers, but in mind-numbing ways. A lesson I can pass on to future engineering educators is to not underestimate how hard it is and how long it takes to change instructional practices. It’s looking like it takes 20 to 30 years to get an idea from the well-developed research stage into undergraduate practice. Unfortunately, some superficial things are showing up. For example, people are using clickers, but in mind-numbing ways. Meanwhile, other ideas that have been around a long time are still not taken up. Look at an idea like formative feedback, or classroom assessment, that Cross and Angelo started writing about in the 1970s. Every time I do a faculty workshop, I build in one of these classroom assessment exercises. Part way through, I ask three short-response questions and three Likert questions, and then during the break, I quickly tabulate the quantitative data, stick it in a histogram, and put it up, and when people come back from the break, I read a sample of the short-response questions. It’s not that hard, and it doesn’t take much time. But when I ask the participants how many of them routinely do something like this classroom assessment in their classes, it’s less than 5% and often closer to 1%. We would never do real engineering without building in feedback. To expect to have some kind of improvement in your classes without having any data about how it’s going is just naïve.

Passing the torch to the next generation

The best general advice I can offer to prospective and current graduate students and other folks interested in engineering education research is summarized in a 2006 ICREE conference paper by Adams, Fleming, and myself, titled, “Becoming an engineering education researcher: Intersections, extensions, and lessons learned among three researchers’ stories.” Another recommendation is to find a friendly community, a group of people that are critical and supportive, because you really need honest feedback, suggestions, and guidance from friends who really care about the quality of your work and your advancement.

People in my generation have done what we can, and I think now it’s up to the next generation. This is probably easier now than it used to be, as engineering education research has now gone public, which is the third stage of Parker Palmer’s movement approach to change. People have said, “This is important to me, this is important work, I’m going to do it, and I’m not going to stay hidden anymore.” At this point, individuals have found one another, and they’ve started going public. They’ve started doing research projects and are starting centers and departments. The final step is for things to become institutionalized. We’re not there yet. I think we’re beginning to see Palmer’s fourth stage, where now it’s becoming more a part of the fabric, but I think we’re still a ways from that. People in my generation have done what we can, and I think now it’s up to the next generation to pick up the torch and do what you can to advance the community.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Smith reflects on the value of bringing insights from educational psychology into engineering education. What other disciplines do you feel could expand your own perspective on engineering education challenges?
  • Consider a teaching practice that you believe is especially important. What kind of evidence could you collect to demonstrate the effectiveness of this practice?


Photo provided by Karl Smith.