onsdag 8 oktober 2014

Teaching at undergraduate levels

In this post I will describe how teaching is performed at the two universities and what separates them. The main comparison will come from the course Process Design (CBE160) at UC Berkeley and the corresponding counterpart at University of Borås (Process Design, 42K17D). However, I have had a number of different courses both at University of Borås but also at Chalmers University of Technology which will be included in the comparison. The picture can thus not be extrapolated to cover the whole educational system but give a fair picture of the specific education in the undergraduate level of chemical engineering. 

UC Berkeley
The courses have several key moments: lecturing, home work, quizzes, reports, presentations and final exam.  The professor (teacher) usually have the lectures and prepare for the home work and quizzes but the GSI’s are the main working force for evaluate and correcting the different assignments (sometimes even undergraduate students that have passed the course with honors can be used). By this construction, it will in theory not be much more work for the professor regardless if the class is 15 or 150 students. In reality, there is always a difference which is seen on the office hours (the time where students can meet their lecturers and ask questions). 

In the system, the students do not register for the courses in the spring until the end of the fall semester. For chemistry and chemical engineering a first selection is done already in the first year when the student chose the chemistry course but there is no determination of which program they will chose among these two (the student might reconsider and not pursue a major in these subject as well but it is not possible without this course). As an extra check (preliminary consideration) there is a course within chemical engineering already in the first year (not mandatory but recommended) that will give an indication of number of students in the following years. 

In general each course has the same amount of lecturing hours as the amount of credits, i.e. a course for 3 credits has 3 lecture hours every week. In addition to these lecturers there might be lab work and office hours. The number of office hours is generally taken as 2 times the number of lecture hours. 

In the fall 2013, an honor code was introduced at UC Berkeley. This honor code: "As a member of the UC Berkeley community, I act with honesty, integrity, and respect for others." is a guide and a starting point for discussions about honesty, integrity and respect. It is a help to clarify what is appropriate or not in for example the classroom or in home works. With the internet age, plagiarism and certain other forms of academic misconduct are becoming much easier and also more common. However, such misconduct (without reflecting to the code of laws etc.) has been found to decrease if honesty and integrity are promoted. This is now a part of all new courses for the freshmen and could be reminded in homework and exams as well.

The faculty (the researching faculty) should teach one course each semester and they switch courses from time to time. They courses are general chemical engineering, which is somewhat a mandatory task for each and every of the faculty to master. There is what I can see not a strong correlation between the courses on the undergraduate level and the research area for each faculty. At the chemical engineering department, short contract teachers are used (mainly from previous PhD graduates) to cover the need of teachers with the declining number of research faculty. These are hired on a semester basis. A few full time lecturers are also present and are there to ensure stability of specific courses (like the unit operation lab course) and program development.

University of Borås
There are several categories of employees at the university. Some of them are full time lecturer (both those with a PhD degree and those without, referring to lecturers and adjuncts). Beside of these there are also those who pursue research and that are involved in teaching. Normally, a full professor has up to 50% of teaching in the contract but that include undergraduate, and graduate teaching (including master thesis supervision which is student research).

It is up to each lecturer to decide their own teaching and this gives a broad variety of techniques. Most courses in the undergraduate level have the traditional structure with lectures and exercises. Because University of Borås is not an old research university, very few GSIs are present and the exercises are therefore taken care of by the teacher him or herself. At Chalmers University of Technology, the PhD students will participate in teaching and act generally as supervisors for lab work or as assistants for the exercise classes. 

A full course load is 60 credits for one year and the courses are mainly 7.5 credits each. The year is divided in quarters which mean that there are two courses in parallel each quarter. The number of lectures varies between the different subjects but are somewhat reflecting the credits (roughly 5-6 hours or lecturing every week for each course and then in addition an extra 3-5 hours of exercise or lab work). In many of the courses, there is an open door policy meaning that the teacher is available (if present) for the students to ask at any time. However, for some courses (especially those with many students office hours are used).

It was encouraging to see the number of different approaches that was seen at the different courses. To attend other lectures is seldom something that we do as teachers/lecturers/professors within academia. It is however, important in order to get new ideas and to see how other deal with the same kind of difficulties in separate subjects. At UC Berkeley, they have something called open classroom, where you can attend a lecture from one of the distinguished teacher award professors. This gives a great opportunity for the rest of the colleagues to easily listen and watch and to get inspired. It gives also a chance for the awardee to spread his or hers technique in a natural environment. 

I have had the opportunity to attend several other lectures at UC Berkeley within different courses belonging to the major in chemical engineering. It was very interesting and gave a good understanding about education from different teachers. Generally, they are really good at trying to engage the whole class even if the number of students is high. It is done by quizzes and small examples where the students have to be active. Also there are questions being asked to the students. All of this is monitored and added to their total score of the course (often the whole course is made up of credits from home work, quizzes, mid-term exam and final exam). The quizzes are given unannounced and on lecture time (if the student is not present there is no second chance to answer the questions). This system is easy for the teacher (especially if there is a GSI helping with the correction) and shows the necessity for the students to be at the lectures. The actual learning outcome is questionable because the question must be rather simple to be done in such a short time but it will anyway give the students something to think about if they didn’t understood the questions or make them understand that they have to read the material and go through the lecture notes again (all the quizzes I have seen were on material from previous lectures).  It also makes the student alert and that they attend the lectures (late arrival on the quiz means less time to finish it).

I was curious about the level of the courses and on the lectures. Here, my assumption was that since UC Berkeley is one of the highest ranked universities and attracts many students these students should be highly motivated and be on the edge all the time.  In the fall 2014 more than 73,000 applications was made to UC Berkeley for freshman studies and in addition more than 16,000 transfer student applied from other universities. The total amount of students are about 25,000 spread out on 4 years which gives the yearly intake to be around 6250 and thus a ratio of about 14 students per available position. It was however striking that the classes are not on a different level compared to what we have in Sweden. On the contrary, in many classes there is an emphasis of basic understanding rather than to go too deep into the subjects. By this way they really build a foundation to start new courses from or wherever they find new information to judge. Especially, this progression is seen within the courses but also on a program level there is a good referral between the different courses. For example: “If this is not fully clear for you, I suggest you look up the material in course xx”.

It is obvious that the teachers know about the high selectivity of students and their assumed potential because they expect the students to perform at high level and achieve high grades on the course. I usually have the tests made in such a way that it is almost impossible to score 100% (maybe that is achieved by 1-2% of the students) but at the courses I followed at UC Berkeley it was quite common to arrange the tests so that at least 15-20% had full score. For the students, this gives a positive feedback and will not create a problem with ranking within the class. Thus it will encourage students to help each other and work together but also is strengthen their own image of being good at the subject.

The actual teaching on undergraduate level within chemical engineering is not so much different on a course basis between the different universities. However, the amounts of credits given for the courses are somewhat more generous at University of Borås. The course in Process design to take a specific example is worth almost twice as many credits (recalculated on a common yearly basis) compared to the course at UC Berkeley. The course content is not exactly similar and we have some extra parts included in the course to make up for the fact that the students do not have the same background.

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