Podcast #74

Monroe Weber-Shirk has taught engineering at Cornell for 24 years, and in 2005 he started the AguaClara Cornell program where he works closely with local partners, graduate students, and up to 80 undergraduates at a time. Together they develop, implement, and maintain sustainable water treatment facilities in multiple developing countries. It’s an incredible model of deeply engaged learning at scale, and in this episode Monroe tells us how it works and how he got here.

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Show Notes

0:00 Intro

0:41 Welcoming Monroe Weber-Shirk. The AguaClara Cornell clean water project and how it started. Monroe’s experience with education abroad: Honduran refugee camps. Goshen College (Monroe’s alma mater) requires all its students to spend some time studying outside the US. A long-held belief in the importance of experiential and engaged learning.

6:22 A project for Engineers for a Sustainable World at Cornell. But the first project actually didn’t work–and why–and stumbling across a better project.

10:27 How the student experience has changed. Scaling engaged learning from 25 students to 80 by finding student leaders. This is not a one-semester project: students may participate for four years. Students work in teams; the teams have leaders; more experienced students become experts and serve as research advisors.

15:02 Learning about leadership. The team leads organize the syllabus, design and create tutorials, deliver content. The instructor only gives two lectures per semester. Two lab sessions per week, sometimes a Monday night lecture, one symposium of student presentations. All the students are in upstate New York designing solutions for people in Honduras. Why not bring students to Honduras? The importance of partner organizations and student accountability.

22:40 What do employers say they want in engineers? The student is not a widget. Going beyond a mechanistic view of how engineering solves problems. Both conventional and low-tech/appropriate designs have their problems. Complex systems fail. e.g., Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character often battles with modern technology. Even “appropriate technologies” like slow-sand technology are expensive and don’t work with dirty water. Monroe’s students design non-electrical systems with no moving parts, save for levers.

29:58 Solving the right problem and designing solutions that can be maintained. The first plant failed. The second plant is ten years old and has been upgraded multiple times. Employers also want teamwork and leadership skills. The typical college course has a false model: that the student is a tabula rasa. Teaching servant leadership. Innovation requires failure. Some students go in to careers that involve social justice. More people now that don’t have safe drinking water than at any other time in history. Flint, Michigan and Ithaca public schools.

38:47 The Big Question: Is there still a place for didactic lecture courses? The challenges of teaching in domains where the existing knowledge is not sufficient: Monroe’s focus is flocculation. Edward’s intro psych course and Doug’s two graduate micro-economics courses.

48:54 Should we teach problems? Or theories? Monroe’s students have trouble applying theories they know well to a practical problem. Edward on teaching creative activities.

52:10 Monroe’s teaching fails? Every course is an experiment. His students want better explanations in his lecture slides. On taking a knee during a lecture while a protest was taking place. Edward’s motto: It helps to care.

57:53 Thanks and signing off.