Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Education and Standards – Personal Experiences

The Saturday 10 February entry on the Blog of my hypnotist and muse friend Barbara Ford-Hammond (www.newsfromthemuse.blogspot.com) reminded me of my own experiences three years or so ago at educational establishments in southern England.

As well as lecturing in engineering materials and design at a further education college I was involved in providing support for students who were finding their studies difficult. That covered a range of students though included those studying engineering.

One such student, on an Engineering Diploma Course, had difficulties with a number of the problems he had been set.

Of the problems with which I helped him there was always one which particularly came to mind. It involved a weight suspended by two cords, each at a different angle to the horizontal; a simple statics problem. I showed him how to solve it by resolving forces horizontally and vertically; the sum of the horizontal forces in the cords being, of course, zero, and the vertical forces in the cords being equal to the weight supported. The horizontal forces were the tensions in the cords multiplied by the Cosine of the angle to the horizontal and the vertical forces were the tensions in the cords multiplied by the Sine of the angle and the weight.

The student looked at what I had drawn and written for a few seconds, then asked,

“What’s Sine?”

Bearing in mind that I was talking to a student who was eighteen or nineteen years old, well into his Engineering Diploma Course, and I had mastered such levels of trigonometry by the age of fourteen, I was somewhere between amused and bemused.

More was to follow. After setting out a problem in my usual way; read the question careful, draw, lay it out on paper, set up the basic equations and solve, the student again looked at what I had done, listened to my explanation, and asked a question; on that occasion it was,
”What’s Pythagoras?”

Another student was studying electrical engineering, something I had not been involved with in earnest since my first year at Brunel University (www.brunel.ac.uk) in 1967. He was stuck on some problems involving alternating current in electrical circuits with the usual resistance, capacitance and impedance elements. When such knowledge is long gone, or, at least, ahs not been used for some time, the obvious starting point is the College Library and appropriate library research skills; find an appropriate book, look up the basics, find similar problems in worked example form, follow them through and regain forgotten knowledge. A little over an hour later I had done electrical calculations of a type last worked through some thirty-five years previously and a student was a little happier and more confident with his work.

At a higher level, I lectured final year Engineering Degree Students on engineering materials at a University for a several weeks. Of the forty-plus students many (most?) were foreign. There were only about half a dozen of those who could have lived with my 1967-1971 Brunel University Engineering Degree Course.

Barbara’s 10th February anecdote of a conversation that illustrated the woeful standards of knowledge was very much in line with my experiences in the education system. To say that education standards have been dumbed down would be a rather gentle way of putting it.

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