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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chemical Engineering Education, Part Two

At a large public research institute such as Penn State, it is all-too-obvious that teaching comes a distant last on the list of priorities.  Which is a real shame... what happened to the original Land Grant rationale that founded the place?

In the course of advising friends-of-friends and just talking to people casually, I come across stories like this all the time:

Amen.  The clear philosophy here is that anyone who can get a PhD is automatically competent enough to teach the material covered in an undergraduate course.  As someone who spent two years teaching privately and two more teaching for the University, I am reasonably qualified to attest that this is simply not true.  Just because someone can understand something complicated does NOT mean they have the skills to effectively communicate the ideas to someone else.  If the academic hiring process isn't carefully screening for communication skills (and it is definitely not - RESEARCH GRANTS bring money and prestige to a place like this, not teaching awards), then the damage to the quality of undergraduate education is immediate and obvious.

Fact is, the PhD process teaches you nothing relevant to actually being a professor.  Having completed virtually all of the requirements for an MS in ChemE, I can attest that success in the program has nothing to do with real talent and is really only a measure of resistance to abuse.  The material covered in the 'core courses' is arbitrary and irrelevant to an extent that is actually quite amazing.

The understanding is that if you can survive the academic hazing, you're in the system... and there is essentially zero oversight from there on out.  Student evaluations like the SRTEs?  They reward the panderers who give little and ask for little in return.  Faculty teaching evaluations?  I saw you having a beer together on Friday night and you babysit eachothers' kids, so give me a break: there is no way anyone can be professionally evaluated by their best faculty buddy down the hall.

The situation is (hopefully) better at places where the undergraduate student as seen as more than just a necessary inconvenience.

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