Embracing change (for good)

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed west for sake of “Gold, God and Cathay”, i.e., to enrich himself, spread Christianity and reach China. Reaching the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola, Columbus assumed these to be unknown islands near Japan and named them the West Indies.

He was wrong about his geography. Columbus’ later failure as an administrator of New World colonies lead to his arrest and return to Spain in chains, but he was eventually forgiven.

The expedition lead by Columbus brought lasting change to our world. It lead to opportunity for Europeans and immigrants even as it brought death and slavery to indigenous populations. From 1494 to 1508, over three million people perished from war, slavery, and mining in the New World. Half a millennium later, the legacy of this wicked problem persists in the form of inequity for indigenous people, and those who were enslaved and indentured. Simultaneously, the North American  GDP per capita is the highest in the world.

Change can lead to good and bad.

We live in fast paced world in which change is inevitable. Personally owned cars (Uber, Lyft) and spare bedrooms (Airbnb) are expanding entrepreneurship and personal revenue streams. Autonomous technologies (Tesla, Google Car) are changing the nature of our work and consumption. Sixty five percent of children entering primary schools today might work in roles that don’t currently exist. Since many of these roles will involve engineering, the nature of teaching and learning is changing.

Today’s students access class-related information through free multimedia web-based content within and outside their institutions. Professors are less likely to stand in the front of the classroom to deliver abstract theoretical lectures based on notes written several years ago. Engineering education is moving past “chalk and talk” and “sage on the stage” routines. There’s an increasing emphasis on problem based learning, experiential learning, free inquiry and integrated projects.

McMaster engineering students use 3D printing systems and makerspaces to design and build objects and devices. There is substantially more project based and experiential learning within and outside the curriculum, which reinforces teamwork and students’ sense of community. Classes are being “flipped”, where lecture material is read outside class and class time used to solve problems.

Our students are being taught to not only create innovations, but to also anticipate and respond to the changes that result. They’re are learning that viable solutions that reinforce good aspects of change require collaboration with others within and outside of engineering.

(Note: The dean will be celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with his family during the coming long weekend and so will resume his blog the week after. He wishes you all a Happy Thanksgiving! Since one of the dean’s guests is a pescatarian, his family intends to serve both the traditional turkey and planked salmon along with other sides, breads and desserts.)

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