A Quality-Based Prescription for Stimulating STEM – Part I – Rethink the Educational System

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

In his February post, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski writes about the importance of encouraging today’s youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In particular, he asks what we can do to help young people get more interested. This first post is part of a three-part series that I’ll present in February to explain some of my thoughts on how to do this: I) Rethink the Educational System, II) Get Rid of Grades, and III) Develop Better Gateway Drugs.

(The first theme is general, and applies to both STEM and non-STEM disciplines; the third one will be particularly fun, but you’re going to have to wait until the end of the month to find out what I mean by this!)

This post, Part I, is about rethinking the educational system. I know that I’m not the first person to do this, nor the last, and my goal here is not to be comprehensive or justify my opinions – but to give you a sense of how I feel as a STEM educator at the college level.

I’d like to do this from the quality perspective. So first, it’s important to recognize that there is a difference between perceived quality and perceived value (according to Mitra’s Model). Here’s the difference:

  • Perceived quality is your assessment of how well a product, service or experience will satisfy your expectations before you buy, adopt, or experience it.
  • Perceived value depends on how well the product, service or experience meets your expectations after you buy, adopt or experience it.
  • Perceived quality and perceived value are moderated by your expectations. Your expectations can (and often do!) change after you buy, adopt or experience something. Perceived value is NOT invariant, nor is it independent – your perception of value can change after you buy, adopt or experience similar products or participate in similar activities, because then you have a more rich basis for comparison. Perceived value can also change over time.
  • Actual quality is the totality of characteristics of the product, service or experience that enable it to meet the stated and implied needs of all stakeholders (ISO 9000: para 3.1.5).

If the perceived value of your higher education remains strong over time (e.g. 10, 20 or 30 years after you graduate), this is a good indication that the quality of the program was high – that it enabled you to meet your needs, the needs of your employers as stakeholders, and/or the needs of your communities and society in general. Even if one of these three classifications of needs is satisfied, perceived value will be preserved over time. If we improve the quality of the educational system now, our personal perceived value of our own educations should be high – and remain high – over the course of our careers and lives. So that’s what I think we should aim for. But how? Here are some ideas:

#1 Institute a Kanban Educational System. You don’t actually learn something – like really learn something – until you need to use it. As educators, we need to change our “push” system of education to a “pull” system, where students can signal for new knowledge and resources as the problems demand. Quality Bob’s recommendation of combining Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge with statistical thinking (http://roberthmitchell.blogspot.com/2012/02/stem-and-quality-statistical-thinking.html) would be helpful here. So would a more widespread adoption of team-based learning, which has become established as a pedagogy.

#2 Abolish “Throughput” as the Key System Performance Metric. Granted, it’s more difficult to set up Socratic exercises (like those that would be required to drive a “pull” educational system) that will lead students to discover the principles and techniques that drive solutions. It’s not difficult, however, to set up the kind of environment that you might encounter in any office: we have a project that needs to be done, and someone’s going to have to sit down and figure out how to do it. But even this approach takes time, effort, and a lot of interaction between the students and their educators, and between the students and other students – it does not align with the dynamic duo of performance metrics, the production of student credit-hours and the number of degrees granted.

Higher education has become more commoditized over the past few decades, which (I believe) is eroding the overall quality of the institution itself. But “getting rid of the urge to push people through” is a tricky suggestion, because it also implies that we may have to reconsider the notion of higher education as a profit center. I would love to keep students in my class until they achieve a minimum level of competence, even if it takes years. But that’s not necessarily practical, and as I think back on my own experience as a STEM undergraduate, there are plenty of things I didn’t “get” until years later when I NEEDED them to get my job done. Refer to point #1 above.

#3 Admit that the Customer is Not Always Right. A recent study indicated that increasing patient satisfaction in hospitals raises healthcare costs and leads to more patient deaths.

What the patients think is best, and what makes them the happiest as consumers of the healthcare system, is not what keeps them alive. And so it is with students in higher education. Students have a financial and emotional incentive to just get through a class. Particularly since they’ve been conditioned to speculate vacuously about how ANY of the stuff they learn could POSSIBLY be useful once they get out of school, it will be difficult for them to anticipate – let alone appreciate – the value of what they are (in many cases) being forced to think about. Some students, as well, will not be satisfied unless they get an easy A without having to do any work. So I advocate tempering the notion of student satisfaction as a measure of how well we’re doing as educators.

#4 Abandon Grades. One of Deming’s Seven Deadly Diseases was the practice of performance appraisals, and grading in academia is no different than what he was rallying about decades ago. There are tons of reasons why grading is not an appropriate – or even an adequate – practice for assuring credentials or credibility. My friend Mary Pat has more to say about this, in particular, because she advocates standardized testing as a “minimum hurdle” that we should expect students to be able to accomplish (or else, not give them the “magic piece of paper”).

Some teachers are hard, some teachers are easy. An A in my class is not the same as an A in another professor’s class. Furthermore, how can I say that what I allocated the most points to on that last exam was really the most important thing my students needed to know? For STEM courses, the recent ASQ survey indicated that there is a perception that way too much work is required, and it would be hard to get the grades that would lead to a good job. This “perception of difficulty” leads many to steer clear of STEM fields, and is entirely rooted in the whole grading nightmare.

More on this particular can-o-worms in Part II.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s