The Joy of Learning Engineering and Education Quality

"We are here to learn, to make a difference and to have fun" - W. Edwards Deming  

In my ASQ Education Brief article, “STEM Demands Innovation” published in February in celebration of Engineers’ Week, I wrote of some of the latest innovative thinking for both exciting students about STEM careers and improving engineering education.  This blog continues that discussion, addressing the joy of learning.   Two very relevant and recently published books provide insight to the Joy of learning and will be highlighted in the discussions in this blog.  I recommend reading both books. They are: 

A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education by David E. Goldberg and Mark Somerville

 Joy Inc : How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan


K-12 STEM Outreach: Starting the Journey to Student Joy in Learning 

In “STEM Demands Innovation”, I wrote of STEM(science-technology-engineering-math) outreach efforts such as the FIRST Robotics competition that has made such a huge difference in inspiring high school students about engineering and STEM, and bringing them the joy of learning.  It cannot be overstated how much fun students have at these competitions!  Key to FIRST are corporate partnerships within a community; employees volunteer their expertise to FIRST teams and provide technical know-how and mentoring on engineering and teamwork.  

There are a number of significant and well-established outreach programs;  I have listed my favorite ones in my K-12 links.   Many companies have supported STEM outreach;  I hope more companies will join the call for participation. Often employees find joy and fun in volunteering.  With the current expected shortage of U.S. STEM professionals, it is imperative that STEM outreach programs are supported.     

The Importance of Joy of Learning in Developing the "Whole New Engineer"

Engineering education research has been a driving force in guiding engineering colleges in transformative initiatives to improve both instruction and pedagogy for effective, experiential learning.  But often, it is not enough. Professors assume that the students are already motivated in an engineering career, when students have their own doubts, especially when the courses get tough and they cannot see their future in engineering in 4-6 years. Professors and their assistants may not be engaging enough and connect with campus issues that students are experiencing.   In addition, a student may feel he/she does not fit in and drop-out.  Students experiencing the joy of learning and colleges/faculty celebrating with students on their successes or achieving milestones such as completion of a course project, gaining secondary admission or completion of an internship will go a long way in engaging students and achieving a higher student retention rate.   

As I discussed in my article, A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education (ThreeJoy Associates, 2014) is a new book that recommends a significant cultural transformation for engineering education.  The authors, David E. Goldberg and Mark Somerville, propose an increased focus on a real student-centered culture.  Their five-pillar educational transformational model of values  joy, trust, courage, connection and openness rings true for student success and is consistent with a student-centered, quality-oriented educational culture.  It encourages students' deep-learning, creative thinking and the students' confident view of becoming engineers.   Less focus on a “weeding-out”culture, and more on coaching and mentoring for student success and an enjoyable learning experiences. As a result, students feel they are empowered and inspired in their academic/career paths as future engineers.   Some engineering colleges already have or are making the transformation to  a student-focused learning  culture. This book provides a model and recommendations for a more complete transformation. 

Joy of Learning at Engineering Colleges and in the Workplace : A Quality Experience

In A Whole New Engineer, the authors propose that the " joy pillar" for a successful engineering education program includes three kinds of joy:

  •          “the joy of engineering in designing and making”
  •          “ the joy of close relationships”
  •          “the joy in growth and development”.

Together, they define an integrated view of joy of learning.  

When I read A Whole New Engineer, I was reminded of the research and work of quality management expert Myron Tribus on joy of learning and quality in education. Tribus was one of the early leaders (starting in the 1970s) on defining successful quality in education systems,  empowering students in their learning, including in engineering colleges.  Since then, these ideas on Quality in Education have been expanded upon by Franklin Schargel, David Langford, Lee Jenkins and others, and successfully applied in schools.  

In his article,  “Total Quality in Schools of Business and Engineering”,  Tribus wrote ,

” QUALITY in education is what makes learning a pleasure and a joy…  It takes a quality experience to create an independent learner…Teachers must be ever alert to engage the students in a discussion of what constitutes a quality experience.”  

 Tribus’ joy of learning provided me the insight that we may connect the ideas in A Whole New Engineer, ideas that are very engineering education-centric , with the ideas from the field of Quality in Education.   A strong connection exists between a quality management system (and culture) for engineering education and  the  joy of learning engineering.  As I see it, if we do not start with joy and celebration of learning in the freshman year and finish with joy of learning from experiences in the senior year, somehow the engineering college has not accomplished its vision for its graduates. (Of course, the practices that lead to joy of learning must be integrated with the academic and teaching/learning processes that provide the rigor for an engineering education.)   Furthermore, without students having the joy of learning as seniors, we risk a lower retention of graduates as engaged practicing engineers.  Mentoring students throughout their college years  and helping them feel joy and celebrate their learning experiences matters for their future career.

The Culture of Joy in the Workplace

In support of these ideas, consider the discussion of a culture of joy from the workplace  perspective:  Richard Sheridan, author of Joy Inc : How We Built a Workplace People Love (Portfolio, 2013, 2015)  and CEO of  Menlo Innovations (Ann Arbor) writes in Joy Inc. of creating a culture of joy at Menlo Innovations.  He describe joy in the workplace as

" Joy is designing and building something that actually sees the light of day and is enjoyably used and widely adopted by the people for whom it was intended."

 In building this culture, he has adopted many ideas from lean methodology and quality management.  In connecting quality thinking with the "joy" workplace culture, Sheridan writes:

"Alongside all the practices that contribute to quality at Menlo is the upward spiral of morale that comes from knowing you are operating within an environment where it is safe and respected to do good work.  Rigor and discipline are hard, and it's always easy to say, "Tomorrow I will do better." Tomorrow never comes- it is the actions we take today that make all the difference.  If you can get your entire team into a disciplined routine of applying a rigorous approach you all believe in, and the effects become noticeable, morale soars even if the rigor is difficult.  It is in these moments of rigor that the seeds of joy are planted.  When your team enjoys the fruits of their labor, there will be an undeniable satisfaction that boosts morale and gets everyone ready to do it all again." 

These thoughts transition well to engineering education. In any engineering education program, academic rigor and well-defined quality processes are needed to ensure a quality education, and with a culture that celebrates joy of learning, there is a sense of accomplishment, leading to joy.   

Corporate-Sponsored Internships Add to the Joy of Learning Engineering

In today’s engineering education programs, it is expected that students have had internships or co-ops with industry by the time they graduate.  A recent Gallup poll indicates that having an internship is one of the six college experiences linked to life-preparedness.  A well-planned internship/co-op program can also bring “joy of learning” to students.  Companies who sponsor internships or capstones can show students the possibilities of their career paths and the exciting challenges of engineering new products.

Summary: A Call for Joy of Learning 

In summary, a "Joy" culture belongs in engineering colleges as well as the STEM workplace.  We need more engineers, we need to replace “weeding out” students in the freshman and sophomore years, with supportive, inclusive and innovative curricula that excite students and bring them joy of learning,  such as experiencing hands-on “real-world” projects.   Engineering education leaders have the vision of students enjoying their college years, graduating and becoming successful engineers in their communities.  More can be done in our engineering colleges in creating a more student-centered "joy of learning" culture, leading to a quality education and the graduation of 21st century engineers serving their communities and enjoying their careers as engineers.  

Cindy Veenstra, PhD, Veenstra and Associates