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Learning by doing

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand". That's a very well known quote by Confucius, that is usually mentioned by pedagogues. Basically, it says that most of the times the best way to learn is by doing.

Since the end of July, and thanks to the generous funding of the UAX, I am visiting the SAIL research group at Queen's University. As part of my visit, last week I went to Waterloo to visit the rest of the team that works over there. Jack and Ahmed took me around the campus of the University of Waterloo, and I noticed that there was more campus activity than at Queen's. They explained to me that it was because of the "coop" students. At first, I did not really catch what they meant. What is that "coop" thing? At Waterloo, students have teaching terms and "coop" terms, when they go to companies and work there for six months, as part of their learning experience. They work and attend classes, during all the scholar courses. There are different options, like working only during summer terms, or doing it alternate, which means that some students have to attend courses during summertime. Basically, there is always a teaching semester, even in summer. And both attending classes and working count as part of their studies. Interesting, huh?

According to Wikipedia, Waterloo has the largest "cooperative educational" program in the world. There is a full article in Wikipedia about cooperative education, full of interesting references and experiences about the topic. It seems that it started in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, with the goal of improving the learning process of engineering students. They realized that those students who had to work to cover their expenses were achieving better academic results and more job opportunities.

Actually, last weekend, while hanging out in Kingston, I found a group of students with a "Formula 1"-like car, and they explained to me that they built the car themselves, as part of their undergraduate studies on Mechanical Engineering. They actually have created a racing and engineering team, and were ranked first in Canada in the competition. The car even had some telemetry systems, that they used to tweak the car to the different circuits where they have to compete. They car cost about 50,000 CAD to build, with most of the budget coming from Queen's, but also with funding coming from different sponsors. I was amazed that a bunch of guys in their early twenties could have built such a car, which was by all means equivalent to the cars that we see in the Formula 1 racing, and above all, that they did it with so many constraints. They start have the car at the beginning of the course, and in the same scholar course, they have to participate in the competition. If they do that for undergraduate studies, imagine what endeavors will those students will be able to manage in their professional future.

So far, I thought that it was better to delay contact with the real world while studying. If you start to work, it will distract you, you will not get grades as good as you could, and even though you gain in experience, you will loose in grades, that are important for some future options (like applying for a research grant, at least in Spain). But having known about these initiatives, I have changed my mind. Grades, for themselves, are useless, They are just a carrot in front of students that make them concentrate in getting better grades, they are not a learning instrument. In engineering studies (and probably in other studies), learning is achieved by doing, and everything that separate students from doing is wasting the time of professors and students. In my experience as student, and short experience yet as lecturer, those students that go to a company for some time while they are still pursuing their undergraduate studies have to face more difficulties to pass their courses, and some times even the lack of understanding by lecturers, that want them to attend their classes. In summary, the policies that we use for grading, teaching and student practices, discourage students from going to industry to gain experience, because that is usually reflected negatively in the rest of their curriculum.

Next time we face a case of a student who cannot attend classes because she is working (either as a part of the curriculum, or just to earn some money), instead of punishing her, we should think about the goal of their studies, and therefore as our goal as teachers. Is it their learning or our grading? Is it more important to attend our classes or to be part of the real world of the profession out there? And should we discourage or encourage that? Do we want them to hear and forget, see and remember, or do and understand?

Written on Aug 10 2010 | Tags: #university, #cooperative education, #learning
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