A More Beautiful Culture: Question-based applications to drive an undergraduate engineering culture toward curiosity
From August to October, 2019, James Madison University faculty read and discussed Warren Berger's book, "A More Beautiful Question," as part of an effort to imagine possibilities to drive curiosity amongst our engineering students, faculty, and staff. With a project-rich curriculum, we've identified curiosity as being the gateway mindset to academic and career successes.Why?
Using the book's premise as motivation, we thought of various ways to create question-driven and impactful interventions. While curricular nudges are easy, classroom behaviors are typically compartmentalized by students (or faculty) as important only to the classroom -- we decided to look elsewhere for influential change. This card presents three of our simple and inexpensive question-based approaches:
1. Environmental application: Hallway questions
2. Messaging application: Instagram strategy
3. Inclusiveness application: Higher ed roundtable
More information on each of these three approaches is detailed below.
1. Hallway Questions
A. Goal: Create small physical space modifications to drive curiosity
B. Strategy: We added photograph-based artwork across our discovery, design, and research floor. We created a series of fifty 4x4 inch glass photos to adorn our hallway walls, half were amended with questions or quotes to drive curiosity. Most photos were of Madison Engineering students in action. The photos amended with questions did not include identifiable students in order to eliminate any association, positive or negative, between them and the question; instead photos with unusual/odd images were chosen as a visual layer to drive curiosity. Questions were inspired/modified from "A More Beautiful Question", grouped into three categories (Why?, How?, What If?), and included:
- Why does this situation exist?
- Why does this matter?
- Why should we settle for the current situation?
- Why does it present a problem, or create an opportunity, and for whom?
- Why has no one addressed this need or addressed this problem before?
- Why am I evading inquiry?
- Why should I believe you when you tell me something can't be done?
- Why am I in engineering school and how does my work reflect that?
- How might this look if we stepped into other shoes, or looked at it from a different perspective?
- How do I decide which of my ideas is the one I’ll pursue?
- How do I begin to test that idea to see what works and what doesn’t?
- How do we know what’s true or false? What evidence counts?
- How do I learn from failure?
- How can we make a better experiment?
- How might we pry off the lid and stir the paint?
- How do we figure out what’s wrong and fix it?
- What if it were different?
- What if we could start with a blank page?
- What if we could not fail?
- What if we start with what we already have?
- What if we made one small change?
- What if Madison Engineering didn’t exist?
- What if we delighted our partners?
- What future do I want to create? How do I work my way backwards to get there?
The photos were positioned on the hallway walls using a random pattern generator. The appended files include JPEGs of all images created, as well as some hallway views. Early comments have been positive, including "The photos express the great community of engineers we have here." and "It's good to see students like me at work. It makes me feel like I belong." We have yet to hear/observe if there is any direct impact on curiosity, though.
__________________________2. Instagram StrategyA. Goal:
To transform our Department's Instagram channel from another one designed for passive consumption to one that could stimulate expansive imagining.B. Strategy:
We continue to use Instagram to promote students and faculty at work across a range of projects. Instead of typical photo captions, we lead our posts with questions, either indirectly or directly related to the image. The combination offers up a bit of insight into why, how, and what if behind our special engineering program at JMU. Some example question-driven captions we have used over the past three months include:
- Why do a curricular deep dive and redesign every decade? Because we should, so we do. Day 1 of 2, all minds on board, new S-curve ahead. #MADEbetter
- Why do we gather our freshmen for 2 days of “camp” prior to the launch of the year? Because our students’ success matters. #ReMADE2019
- Why do we ask our students to paint a professional mask on Day 2? High impact engineering careers begin with knowing yourself. #MADEmask #smallbutawesome
- Why do we give our students the freedom to discover their engineering passions? Because each of them is unique, their educational journey should be personalized. #MADEunique #stayunique #ReMADE2019
- Why do our @jmuengineering upperclassmen form a tunnel to help us welcome each of our incoming students by name? Because each of them is truly important to us. Welcome Engineers of 2023! #MADEwelcome #smallisbeautiful
- How might we know if our Re:MADE Camp helps our students build an engineering community before Day 1? When the Selfie Booth is commandeered by groups instead of individuals, something good is happening. #MADEcommunity #successtrajectory
- Why do our freshmen get their first project in Week 1? Because they joined us to make a difference — so every day is a project day @jmuengineering ! #MADEprojectready#wesweatpurple
- How do you get a great engineering internship? Focus on the 3 Rs: reputation, relationships, and reality. Great advice from student panelists at today’s #MADEsummers2019event on internships #peerwisdom
- How do you get the 3 Rs? 1. Reputation: Do more than is expected, 2. Relationships: Ask questions rooted in curiosity, 3. Reality: Spend time on stuff that matters — Project rich learning is huge differentiator. #projectadvantaged #MADEprojectready
- What’s the surest path to becoming an amazing engineer? Hang out with people on the same journey. @jmu_swe meetup in our courtyard to rally new students to the cause of awesomeness. #MADEgreat #peoplelikeusdothingslikethis
Go to our Instagram feed: @jmuengineering
to see examples. We have built our network of followers by 25% and likes are up on average 41% over the past three months.
__________________________3. Higher Education RoundtableA. Goal:
Bring new voices to the conversation around a next generation engineering educationB. Strategy:
Starting in September, all planned visitors to our engineering department trigger a Roundtable Discussion on the Future of Higher Education
. For these sessions we match the visitors with a nearly equal number of engineering faculty and engineering students, and engage them all in a one-hour conversation on higher education with special focus on engineering. Each group has a different mix around the table, but the questions have stayed the same. All conversations are audio-recorded, and these files are archived for later access by engineering faculty. Recordings do not identify the speakers, affording a reasonable level of anonymity. Most of the session have been capped at eight people around the table (e.g. four visitors, two students, two faculty). Each group is lightly facilitated by an engineering faculty familiar with the method, but mostly guided by the questions presented on a card within a notebook handed to each participant upon arrival. Our questions include:
- From your experience, what do you think need to change in education?
- From your experience, describe the best learning opportunity you have been a part of.
- How do you imagine students best engage in learning in the 21st century?
- How do you imaging learning evolves from high to college to professional?
- How do you imagine JMU and Madison Engineering might position its engineering program best for learning in the 21st century?
- How do you imagine education might change to more effectively engage a diverse community of learners?
- What do you imagine the role of teachers should be in the 21st century?
We had four Roundtables in October, featuring: (1) two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their high school daughter, (2) an alum, (3) two visiting faculty, and (4) a management team from industry. Each had 2-3 engineering faculty, so to date 10 of our faculty have been involved. Also, each had 2-3 engineering students, to date 9 have been involved. While everyone has the above questions on a card, all sessions have meandered beyond the prepared set -- no group has gone through all the above by the end of the session time. In general, the smaller groups and those with an engineering guest have proven to be more linear in conversation and the question set is an especially helpful tool for them. We have captured all four sessions and archived the audio files in a protected server for faculty review. These sessions are being used to stretch our thinking around our interest in a holistic creation of a second generation learning landscape for JMU Engineering -- curriculum, environments, students, teachers, pedagogies, etc. are all fair game. With only four sessions to date, it is already clear of the benefit of hearing from people not usually at the "curriculum committee" meetings; we are expanding the Roundtable to groups of our students in the Spring.
Using the three methods presented in this card, departments can drive curiosity throughout their enterprise via their spaces, their social media channels, and through inclusive conversations.
Tips are scattered throughout the narrative above, but here's a bonus pro tip:
Create a list of questions in advance, then schedule/position/use them with a plan to drive your desired outcomes -- one question here and there will be lost, questions "everywhere" make a difference.