STEM Education Interview: Robert Talbert

I’m excited to put up my first ever interview. I’m working on a project for an organisation and this
is an interview as part of my research.

Picture of Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert is a Mathematics professor at Grand Valley State University, who researches Cryptography but has also
spent a lot of time recently experimenting in the field of Mathematics Education. His interview answers are interesting, non trivial and show some of the work that is being done in this area.

1. Do you feel that the University education system in the USA is
producing graduates for the STEM careers. If so what would you
introduce? You’ve written on your blog about the difference between
say a 1960s Engineering graduate and a 2011 one, do you feel that the
University system has caught up with this?

Universities are definitely producing STEM graduates, but it’s debatable whether production is keeping up with demand, and whether graduates are really prepared for the challenges that are coming up in the twenty-first century. To be fair, nobody really knows for certain what the future holds, and so it’s difficult for universities — which are by nature conservative — to adapt to an increasing pace of change. Some universities are catching up fast, and the professional STEM organisations in the US, such as ABET, have been good agents to drive the necessary changes in education. But there are also many universities, some with highly-respected STEM departments, who wish to maintain a 1960’s model of STEM education even as they do cutting-edge research in their disciplines. There’s a sense that if the model we’ve been using has produced successful researchers and professionals, then why change it? But there are a lot of reasons to change, and a lot of potential for even greater success if we do.

2. Where do you feel screen casts, Khan Academy, Youtube videos and
MIT OCW should fit in an undergraduate STEM course?

Online video — and the ease with which people can create, share and consume it — has completely changed the game in terms of how course time is structured and managed, in ways we are only beginning to understand and accept. Where it fits in an undergraduate STEM course, I believe, is in the role traditionally occupied by the in-class lecture delivered by an instructor. There’s not much inherently wrong with lecture; students do need to absorb information from a trusted source before they can be expected to work with it. But it’s never been beneficial to student learning to allow the lecture to occupy the majority of time that students are guaranteed to be in the same place at the same time with an expert who can help them assimilate that information. The only reason we allowed lecture to occupy that position was that there was no other way to mass-transmit information. But now there is, through online video. So I see courses changing structure to place the lecture outside of class, online, where students can view it at times and in doses that make sense for them, and then use the class time for active work with careful coaching and supervision by the instructor.

3. You’ve written a lot about the inverted classroom on your blog, and
in your professional work. What do you feel this does to students?

At first, it makes a lot of them mad! The inverted classroom definitely goes against student expectations about education and the roles of teacher and student. For many students, particularly younger ones, education is about copying down what the teacher says and then duplicating it on a test; the teacher’s job is to tell the students what is on the test; and the students’ job is to take the test. When you flip things around and make students responsible for acquiring basic knowledge and then put them to work in the classroom instead of letting them passively record lectures, it upsets the system many of them have come to know and, unfortunately, love.

But in the long run, what the inverted classroom does to students is that it prepares them for lifelong learning. In their future jobs, and in their future lives, there will be no classtime lectures on the things they need or want to know. For instance, when I became a parent, there was no class to attend the first time my oldest daughter woke up in the middle of the night with a 105 degF fever. I had to do some very fast web and book searches and piece together what was going on so that I could take the correct next step. You can find similar examples everywhere from life, family, work, hobbies. You don’t, and often can’t, wait for someone to give you a lecture and work out 100 examples that will be on a test. Instead, you have to go looking for relevant information and learn the basics on your own and be able to put the basics to work in a live situation. The inverted classroom puts students in the position of being responsible agents for their own education just as they will be, repeatedly, later in life.

4. Do you feel the university will be replaced by such technologies
mentioned above? If no, do you feel that some pronouncements by people like Bill Gates or certain politicians are a bit premature?

Education is fundamentally a human activity. Cognitive research has shown us time and again that deep learning almost always takes place in a social context. As such, I don’t see online video or other similar resources as being replacements for higher education. Instead, those technologies allow the human element to be enhanced in university classrooms. For example, if we can move lectures to an online setting, it frees up lots of time for collaborative work in the classroom among students and between students and professors. Far from replacing the human element of education, technology can — and should — allow our humanity to be accentuated and more deeply involved in learning.

5. Finally, is a STEM graduate functionally illiterate if they lack programming skills? Why so?

I don’t know about “illiterate”, but I would certainly say that they would be no more than just technicians, people who can operate machinery but don’t know how it works. Computers used to be a highly specialized technology used by only a few people — back when programming consisted either of punch cards or arcane low-level languages. But these days, everybody in the STEM disciplines uses computers all the time, and the ability to custom-create functional software for specific tasks on the fly is essential to being a professional STEM practitioner. The complexity of information and tasks that we work with these days guarantees that off-the-rack software is not always going to meet our needs — there will inevitably be a situation where you’ll have to program something to get it to do exactly what you need. If you can’t do that, the next person in line for the job probably can! And anyway, the languages available for non-computer scientists to work with these days — MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic, etc. — are so easy to use that there’s no reason why STEM people shouldn’t learn how to work with them.