Can Teaching Be Agile?

4 min

On college campuses across the country, it is the commencement season again. At my college, Purdue University College of Engineering, more than 2,200 bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. Degrees will be conferred; combined with summer and winter commencements, more than 3,000 engineers will have graduated in 2022.

Nationwide, students will be taking pictures with family holding their newly earned diplomas, reflecting upon their journeys over the past few years. They may also find themselves asking questions that have increasingly emerged: Why does learning need to take place in person and at residential colleges? Extending that further, what is the value-add a Ph.D.-granting research university, like members of the Association of American Universities, provides to programs in bachelor’s degrees?

We have heard some answers to these questions: the best learning in college is a total 24/7 experience, through social life as much as in academic life, and having top researchers as teachers can enrich such learning in and outside of the classroom. Some think the undergraduate programs in top American universities often live up to this ideal, while others disagree. Regardless, we shouldn’t settle and it is worthwhile to ask, “How can we keep innovating to be better?”

Suppose we narrow the scope to engineering undergraduate programs for now. Engineering students are supposed to acquire certain knowledge and skills – and there are various lists for that – but perhaps just as important is a state of the mind:

  • Curiosity. Learning is more about “uncovering” than “covering”; uncovering that there’s much more that a person doesn’t know and can learn about, and that learning can be fun.
  • Problem-solving. Engineering is both a domain of knowledge and a language for the process of problem-solving: For example, you learn, through concrete case studies, how to think about modularizing a complex system through “divide and conquer” and defining the interfaces between these modules.
  • Self-learning. The exact body of knowledge that an engineer needs over the course of a career shifts constantly. Learning is lifelong, and through college you acquire the ability to learn (mostly) by oneself later.

Technologies can help. From AI-based grading bots and interactive classroom to virtual labs and educational digital twin, technology is changing how – and where – teaching happens, but the pedagogy itself must also innovate. That includes revisiting some fundamental assumptions embedded in degree programs. Here is a small sample:

Assumption: Degrees are defined by the departmental structures in a university, which are usually bounded by engineering substrates or methodology

  • New approach: Degrees can also be defined by application domains, such as semiconductors, which cut across electrical, computer, materials, chemical, mechanical, environmental, and industrial engineering.

Assumption: The sequencing of teaching material goes through all the foundations before reaching applications and a “capstone” design in the end.

  • New approach: The four-year experience can be a living and evolving design project. And in each course, we teach “just in time” instead of “just in case:” structuring the foundational knowledge as answers to a collection of practical questions.

Assumption: Each year is divided into two semesters, or three quarters, of learning and a summer for activities like internship.

  • New approach: Students can “learn while work,” spending a year working almost full-time in a well-crafted co-op while taking online courses from home institutions so that they still graduate on time. When they are back in person to classrooms, the co-op year will motivate the learning of theorems and equations.

Assumption: Most of the courses are three credit hours.

  • New approach: There can be more choices, such as one-credit courses that give flexibility and freedom for each individual to explore within a tightly packed engineering curriculum.

In academia, as much as in other walks of life, there are always reasons why things are the way they are. That doesn’t preclude us from asking if the cost-benefit comparison against the alternatives deserves a revisit. Over the decades, pedagogical innovations at Purdue Engineering have been nonstop, ranging from EPICS, which have been adopted in hundreds of universities worldwide, to VIP and new models of Co-Op.

In recent years, the Purdue’s GRIT+ – Global, Research, Industry, Teamwork and More – experiential learning program encourages every undergrad student to undertake at least one of the following before graduation: Global exchange, Research, Industry co-op, Team-based yearlong projects, or creation of new enterprises. More of these opportunities are better connected to the curricula too. As to the curricula themselves, a few schools in the college have moved forward with Agile Reform of Curricula: Instead of trying to update a curriculum to become the new status quo for many years to come, they focus on a process of continuous experiments, each year piloting some new sequencing, concentrations, one-credit courses, or the deletion of material to no longer be taught. Reflecting the constant change in the preparation prior to college entrance and the rapid transformation of tech industry, agility is the target rather than a perfect new norm to last another block of decades into the future.

While it can be tricky to carefully balance agility with the foundational material that mostly remain constant, it remains true that teachers are the key, and one benefit is assured: teachers teach best when we keep learning how students learn.


This article was written by Mung Chiang from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to