Mindful Learning

I was first introduced to the idea of mindfulness through an undergraduate class, Introduction to Mindfulness Practice. The class aimed to provide “an introduction to mindfulness practices to facilitate coping with stress and greater engagement with life.” Now through Contemporary Pedagogy, I see how mindfulness can apply in the classroom. As Ellen Langer defined, “mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context,” as opposed to mindlessness which is a state of automation defined by the past. I am very intrigued by the idea of mindful learning, particularly because my dissertation research focuses on understanding human functional state. I define human functional state to be the ability of a human to complete a task at a moment in time, which is influenced by cognition and affect, in other words, by thoughts and emotions. Thinking about how to implement mindful learning into the classroom, I believe it is important to consider both aspects of mental state, cognition and affect. On the cognitive side, think workload and attention. How can mindfulness be used to assess cognitive overload and distraction in the classroom? I think it is important for both the instructor and the students to actively participate in this reflection of workload and attention. Being able to recognize moments of struggle, or as I would say, decreased human functional state, is the first step towards improving the situation. For example, if a student is mindful that taking notes on the computer leads to diverted attention (i.e. browsing social media) then maybe they can take the necessary steps to change their behavior (i.e. taking notes by hand instead). It’s also extremely important to be in touch with affective state. In addition to introspective reflection by the instructor and the students, I think that it is important for the instructor as the leader of the classroom to get a pulse of how the students in the class feel so that they can make adjustments where needed. In this way, the instructor has a responsibility to extend mindfulness beyond themselves and to the class as a whole. Are students extremely stressed about an upcoming deadline? Is this affecting their performance in the class or their personal health? To me, seeking the answers to these questions, in conjunction with assessing cognitive state, is key for mindful learning.

Taking Authority with Digital Pedagogy

In the context of contemporary pedagogy, what does it mean to be an authority? To me, a major difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian is self-confidence. While an authoritarian figure may fear failure and may try to control a classroom using their position of power, an authoritative figure embraces being a learner alongside students and is comfortable achieving control through other, more respectable, means. In the age of digital pedagogy, I believe that it is important for instructors to recognize but not be intimidated by insecurities, particularly insecurities with technology in the classroom.

As we have heard from previous class discussions, some instructors are reluctant to adopt new technology in the classroom. I understand why. It’s nearly impossible to stay completely up-to-date on the latest and greatest technology, whether that’s a new coding language or a new collaboration tool. Instructors may fear that lack of experience with a tool will show weakness and will cause them to loose respect from students. Not to mention, there’s a chance that the students may be more familiar with the new tech than the instructor may be. While these are legitimate concerns, I think it is very important that instructors are open to be learners in their own classrooms and that they are comfortable taking authority with digital pedagogy. I think that a student is more likely to respect and successfully learn from an instructor that is willing to work with students and take initiative.

Online Learning: Tech Wins and Losses

My graduate experience has included a significant amount of online learning, in large part because my program, the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences (SBES), is a joint program between Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University. Our curriculum includes multiple classes that are broadcasted between the two schools, some taught at VT and others taught at WFU. My undergraduate experience, on the other hand, did not include a single online class that I can recall.

I’d like to reflect upon these graduate distance classes, as both a student on-site with the instructor (when the class was taught at VT) and as a student remote from the instructor (when the class was taught at WFU). The first thing that comes to mind is the intense and frequent frustration with the technology. However, giving it a second thought, I recognize instances of appreciation.

First, the tech losses. Despite efforts from the instructors and the tech staff on call, a majority of the classes, particularly at the beginning of the semester, either did not start on time or were interrupted at some point because of a broadcasting software failure. While this is frustrating as a student, it’s probably more frustrating as an instructor. Now, these sorts of failures can, and did, improve with experience. However, the nature of the online environment also made personal interactions, student to student and student to instructor, very difficult. The outcomes varied from awkward interruptions and transitions communicating live across campuses to a general lack of engagement by remote participants. These issues are certainly not easy to navigate as an instructor, but they can be tackled. Some of the best lectures were lead by instructors that made a conscious effort to connect with remote participants. Considering the classes were often around 20 people, efforts to learn students’ names went a long way in building an affective classroom, even across distance.

While the technology was often a pain, it did aid learning in some ways. Having the ability to go back and watch previous lectures was extremely useful. In addition, some instructors annotated slides in real-time. I found marking up the slides to be very helpful. The online annotation had a similar effect of an instructor stepping through a problem on a whiteboard/chalkboard with the added benefit of the notes be saved and recorded. No need for students to frantically jot things down before the board was erased. Learning efforts could be devoted to understanding the steps. In my opinion, this sort of technology is great in any classroom, on- or off-line.

All in all, broadcasting technology will continue to improve and will eventually provide reliable, stable connections across classroom settings. However, there is less of a tech fix to building a more personal classroom across distance. This burden will likely continue to fall on the instructor. That said, with awareness and conscious effort from the instructor, there is promise in playing off the strengths and weakness of tech in the classroom for online learning.


Taking a Hack at Digital Pedagogy

The Modern Language Association (MLA) has published “a curated collection of reusable and remixable pedagogical artifacts.” While the collection, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments , is primary written for humanities scholars, I see a lot of relevance to applying the entries on digital pedagogy to my field of engineering.

The first entry that caught my eye was code. I may be biased as an engineer, but I think everyone should know how to code in this digital age and would benefit from learning the basics. Reading the statement from the humanities perspective, it seems as though humanities scholars agree. While I do not think everyone needs to understand coding as a science, as in researching algorithm development and evaluation at the forefront (we’ll leave that to the computer scientists), I think every field could benefit from using coding as a tool. Similar to the core subjects like math, English, and foreign languages, maybe everyone, no matter their major, should take a certain amount of coding in college? After all, coding is really just another foreign language.

The second entry to peak my interest was about ePortfolios. My personal website was actually born out of a course requirement from Preparing Future Professoriate to build a professional portfolio online. As the MLA entry explains, porfolios are a great way to demonstrate “delivered, experienced, and lived curriculum”. Not to mention, an online portfolio is basically a no-rules resume, as in you are not limited to expressing yourself or communicating your experiences with a few words on a piece of paper. I have also found my website (ePortfolio of sorts) to be a helpful destination and repository for thoughts and links to things that I don’t want to forget. The public element of creating a website also challenges students to put effort into the pages and posts. I’m interested in including this aspect of digital pedagogy into future practice.

Finally, maybe not surprisingly, I, as the engineer appreciated the hacking entry. As defined in the MLA statement, hacking is “a kind of relentless curious tinkering in the face of constraint, censorship or lockdown”. Admittedly, I am not great at this somewhat unstructured approach. I’ve found that getting started is the hardest part, which is where I think a little extra push from an instructor could be helpful. Learning-by-doing and accepting mistakes is sometimes a painful process but is extremely important for engineers, and really all majors. I’ve envisioned many ways of implementing hacking into future teaching. The MLA write-up on hacking linked to a lot of great resources. I’ve personally used Instructables before, which is a platform for makers of all types. I could imagine combining digital pedagogy with project-based learning (PBL) by having students create an Instructables post to document their project at the end of a course. I imagine there would be challenges at first as students are nervous and hesitant to get started. However, once the creative process is going, I think hacking in class would be a great success!

TLDR: Coding, ePortfolios, and hacking in the classroom are cool and I look forward to finding ways to implement these aspects of digital pedagogy into future teaching!

PBL and CBL in Practice

Project-based learning (PBL) and case-based learning (CBL) are great in theory as they create an inclusive environment and challenge students to take an active role in gaining knowledge and skills. And while in my 20 years as a student I have seen some very successful implementations of PBL and CBL, I have also seen notable failed attempts. As I reflect on the differences between the success stories and the flops, three main barriers to successfully implementing PBL and CBL come to mind: 1) establishing base knowledge, 2) managing expectations, and 3) providing effective feedback.

I appreciated the post on First Sine of Madness last week calling for a balance of traditional lectures and case-based learning. I completely agree that lectures can be beneficial. While a little bit of the painful learning-by-doing that PBL and CBL encourage is good, if students are at a complete loss or do not have a sufficient amount of base knowledge to succeed, learning-by-doing can be totally overwhelming and ineffective. I think that it is the job of the instructor to act as a facilitator. As a facilitator, the instructor has experience and expertise with the topic and should help bring students of various backgrounds up to speed. Additionally, I think it is important for the instructor to aid in the reflection process to help students connect the project or case to the big picture. As an example, students should begin a case knowing most of the vocabulary and they should end a case seeing how the specific example can be generalized. I think that instructor-led lecture and discussion could successfully improve both of these aspects, pre and post, of establishing base knowledge.

Next is managing expectations, which builds upon the ideas of establishing base knowledge. As a student when I  hear that a class will include PBL and CBL, I automatically think, “Great, more homework”. And while this is often true and necessary to challenge the students to take learning into their own hands, I have seen some instructors more effectively set up students for success by managing expectations. From the instructor point of view, I think it is very important to know the audience. For example, if undergraduate students are given 2 days to read 4 research papers so that they can participate in class discussion, I imagine the discussion will be pretty quiet. Now maybe that would be more reasonable to expect from graduate students. Alternatively, the instructor could better manage expectations by instructing students to at minimum read the abstracts and look at the figures for the 4 papers. I’m borrowing this idea from one my current professors, who asks us each class to give him at least 7-minutes of preparation using his tried and true skimming method. Students also need to be able to manage expectations and know that a class with PBL or CBL will come with a fair share of struggles and the path to success may not be linear. I think it is helpful for an instructor to acknowledge this fact at the beginning of the class or course.

Finally, a successful implementation of PBL or CBL needs effective feedback between students and instructors. Students should be able to provide the instructor feedback on what does and does not work about the process. Often PBL and CBL are open-ended and may be uniquely shaped by the class. Students should also provide feedback to one another. Particularly for group-based work, peer review and evaluations provide valuable insights. Lastly, the instructor must provide students with timely and critical feedback. While there may not be one right solution for PBL and CBL problems, it is important for students to see the strengths and weaknesses in their thought processes. As we have been trained, students are eager, although nervous, to be graded and be assessed. While assessment is more difficult when there is not a single correct answer, it is important for an instructor to be able to differentiate well-thought-out work from haphazard, after-thought work. If all students, no matter their amount of effort, receive the same grades, there will be no incentive for students to try and apply themselves more wholeheartedly. I acknowledge this is not an easy task for the instructors and graders, but I think it is an important piece to the PBL/CBL puzzle.

Overall I think that PBL and CBL can be effective if base knowledge, expectations, and feedback are considered. Lectures are not the enemy and can be useful. Expectations need to be managed by both students and instructors. PBL and CBL should not be used as a crutch to solely offload work from the classroom to the home. Time in class should be thoughtfully managed by an instructor facilitator. And no matter the subject, feedback must be given and received.

Project-Based Learning

Biomedical IDEAS Lab was easily one of the most impactful and valuable classes of my undergrad BME degree (I mean how could it not be with a name like that?). While I cannot recall the exact meaning of the acronym, the year long lab course incorporated hands-on projects covering the diverse curriculum of biomedical engineering, from culturing cells to building a circuit for electrocardiography (ECG). The course was organized as a series of modules taught by different instructors depending on the topic.

I found the project-based learning of IDEAS Lab extremely effective. Working in small teams (typically 4 students) allowed me to take an active role in the labs and provided the benefit of group discussion. I found the lab preparation scheme to be particularly effective. To introduce each module outside of the physical lab space, the instructor of the week would give a brief lecture. From the lecture and any other notes that were available, we would take a timed quiz on the material at the very beginning of the lab. I remember the quizzes being very well written, short but thought-provoking, applying the concepts we had learned in the lecture hall. I can still recall multiple quizzes in which, mid-quiz, everything clicked and I could see how the hands-on lab would apply all of my new knowledge. We would also review the answers to the quizzes right after everyone was done. I appreciated the direct, immediate feedback.

As I reflect on IDEAS Lab, I recognize the importance of motivating a new topic and allowing for connections in the classroom. With IDEAS Lab there were multiple chances to digest the application of the lab work, from the original lecture to the hands-on lab time to the report writing. I would like to incorporate these key concepts of motivating the topic, craftily testing individual knowledge, allowing for team-based hands-on activity, and providing valuable feedback into a project-based classroom experience.

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity is extremely important, but it does not mean a whole lot without inclusion. As Verna Meyers said, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Bringing people of various backgrounds, opinions, and interests together is step one, but getting them to stay and share perspectives, ideas, and values is step two. Whether on the giving or receiving end (because at some point or another we have all been outsiders), there is something we can all do to be inclusive and foster a safe and brave space.

From my personal experience as a female engineer, there have been multiple occasions in which I find myself feeling intimidated being the only woman in the room. I takes conscious effort to remind myself to Lean In and Sit at the Table (thanks Sheryl Sandberg, check out her book Lean In if you want more on this). And often I do mean those two things literally…it can be difficult to choose one of the few seats at the table when you don’t quite feel like you belong at a meeting and sometimes physically sitting up and speaking louder is necessary to be heard. I recognize there are things I can and should do to be included, even if they are a little uncomfortable. We have to accept the invitation and actually show up to the party. This hits on the brave part of the safe and brave space.

Now feeling safe in the space largely depends on the others in room. How will it be received when I sit at the table and lean in? Will I be welcomed and included? There are very actionable, relatively easy, things we can all do to support inclusion, particularly in the meeting room and classroom. For one, make sure everyone is heard. This not only requires giving everyone the opportunity to speak but, also requires acknowledgement and respect from those listening. In the classroom, this may take shape as encouraging and reaffirming students’ questions.

Making everyone feel comfortable in a space and “asking them to dance” is very much an art and the social grace it requires comes more naturally to some. As I’ve said, I think everyone has a role to play in creating a safe and brave space. However, particularly in the classroom, instructors are uniquely situated to control the culture of the room. In this way there is a responsibility for instructors to act as positive role models and set ground rules for inclusive practice. While this sort of training is not often explicitly taught to aspiring teachers maybe it should be. I say let’s dance!

Combating Fake News

Fake news…it’s a big problem. So what can we do to combat it?

I’m brought back to high school English class when we first learned about the three artistic proofs: ethos, pathos, and logos. You may have a sense for what they are even if you can’t recall high school English class. Think ethic (ethos), pathetic (pathos) and logic (logos). The first method of persuasion, ethos, focuses on convincing an audience by using the author’s credibility and/or character. The emotional appeal, pathos, persuades using an audience’s emotion. Finally, the appeal to logic, logos, draws on an audience’s logic and/or reason. Now if you ask me, we seem to be ranking pathos, then ethos, then logos when it should be logos, then ethos, then pathos. You get the idea. We are reading the click-bait, emotionally-appealing headline and sometimes stopping there. On a good day, we are looking at the name of the website, journal, etc., searching for some credibility. Rarely are we investigating the research, let alone reading the whole article. Yes, I say we because I too have been overwhelmed and overcome with fake news online, in the news, and on social media.

I think we all have a part to play in disrupting and combating fake news, but it won’t necessarily be easy. I’ve been enjoying blogging as an opportunity to research topics in higher education that interest me, but at the same time I have found it very stressful and time-consuming to research the topics and sources of information. Above all, I believe we have a duty to not perpetuate and not distribute false information. Given the abundance of information online this is not easy. Even true data can be manipulated to tell different stories. One thing we can all do is ask questions. This is a skill that I have developed over the course of my education but didn’t fully appreciate until grad school. I read the occasional scientific paper in undergrad but viewed them more like I would a textbook (not that textbooks can’t be biased and/or incorrect), correct, definite, and final sources of information. It wasn’t until I started grad school that I started to understand the true meaning and value of the peer review process. Not all science is created equal and we must read papers with a critical eye because they are not always correct and/or ethical. Check out my other blog post on research integrity.

I’ve mostly been talking about fake news through the lens of a scientist. Of course, not all fake news revolves around science. However, I think we can all take a more scientific approach, using logos, to evaluate news. That’s not to say ethos and pathos aren’t important, too. It is critical to know the credibility of the author, not just to accept or reject the information completely, but to understand subtle spins on the data that may be due to bias. Overall, combating fake news starts with one rule: think before you share.


Costs of Higher Education in the U.S.

Higher education comes at a high price in the U.S. How high you might ask? From College Board for the 2018-2019 academic year the price of tuition and fees for in-state public 4-year institutions (undergraduate) averaged $10,230. That’s a pretty penny and that’s only one semester! As shown in the figure below, public 2-year institutions offer a cheaper alternative. Private nonprofit 4-year institutions, on the other hand, are on the opposite end of the spectrum with an average of $35,830 per semester. College Board also notes, “The increases in the net prices that students actually pay, after taking grant aid and tax benefits into consideration, have been smaller over the long term than increases in published prices.”


On top of tuition and fees, students have to pay for boarding. From the College Board Trends in College Pricing report, the percentage of students that live on and off campus and with their parents vary by institution type. As shown in the figure below, a majority, 51%, of students at public two-year institutions live with their parents. From my personal experience, on campus housing has been more expensive that off campus housing. Of course off campus housing cost can vary widely depending on the cost of living for the college town. There are also important considerations such as the length of the lease. If you won’t be living in your off campus housing during the summer, finding a sublet can help lighten the financial load.


Overall, the costs of higher education in the U.S. are astonishing. And as the first figure shows, tuition has increased substantially over the past 30 years. Will these trends continue? Time will tell.

Specialization vs Interdisciplinarity

Jack (or Jill) of all trades…master of none? I’ve struggled with this concept for a long time now. I’ve always loved learning lots of different things and initially feared that grad school would mean super specialization. And to an extent this is true. To earn a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree, a student must demonstrate a superior knowledge in an area of study. A dissertation should be research on a new area and the PhD should be the resident expert. I’ve heard that as a PhD student you go from “scared to death to worked to death to bored to death”. While this is clearly hyperbole, it demonstrates the initial nervousness, intermediate workload, and final expertise of the PhD process. In the end, you’ll know your problem area and data better than anyone else, including your adviser. At this point you are specialized. You’re deep in the rabbit hole and have a unique view of your work…and it’s exciting because it’s new and ground-breaking, however specific it might be.

That being said, I don’t think this means interdisciplinarity is out the door. (Not sure that interdisciplinarity is a word but you know what I mean.) More than likely you used skills and expertise from a variety of disciplines in your PhD problem solving approach. Considering I’m a biomedical engineer, and biomedical engineering is an inherently interdisciplinary major, I may have some bias. My classes have always integrated fundamental engineering with biology. Now my PhD research involves lots of coding and data analytics in conjunction with knowledge of human cognition and physiology.  So maybe interdisciplinarity is more difficult to find in other majors, but I bet it’s there. And it’s becoming even more commonplace in university settings, which I think is great. Working with an interdisciplinary team means more and different perspectives on the same problem which leads to innovative solutions.

I wonder, has this value on interdisciplinarity reached K-12 education? My classes throughout high school were mostly segmented and independent. Granted I’ve mostly been talking about interdisciplinarity in research rather than teaching, but I imagine similar principles would apply to learning. Making connections between classes was and is one of my favorite things. Realizing that acceleration is the derivative of velocity in calculus class one day (right across the hall from physics) was mind-blowing! How can we integrate (pun intended) more of these moments into education? Technology education seems like a good, and relatively easy, place to start. It’s not hard to imagine an art or drama class merging with instruction on 3D CAD modeling and computer programming. Check out the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech and see some of the exciting ways VT students and faculty are combining knowledge across disciplines.

My other thought is whether or not this value on interdisciplinarity is predominately American? Many other countries have students choose a specific path early on in their education. While these streams are present, to a certain extent, in American high schools (I’m thinking about the Governor’s School for Science and Technology and School of the Arts offered to students in my high school), the system is not as centralized. Are our primary and secondary education systems discouraging interdisciplinarity and does this vary by country? These are my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours. Comment below.