Monday, October 5, 2015

The blue ocean

In the midst of providing feedback on written work, I found this gem from a student:

"They consistently looked around Blue Ocean, a new market which has a lot of possibility to succeed."

The poetry is unintentional, I think, as this student is bi-lingual and less comfortable in English than in the first language learned. But I love the image of the blue ocean (associated with blue ocean strategy) as a real place, one worthy of the name where we can spend time looking around until we find something we think will succeed.

Perhaps the grammar could use a bit of tweaking...but I think I'll leave it as it is.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ill-defined problems

This semester, I have another capstone class designed to prepare seniors to use what they've learned in their degree program to tackle the reality of doing versus studying. We've completed job searches (to assess knowledge, skills, and abilities needed), completed self-assessments, and looked at the learning they've acquired from life and academic failures, all as foundation for the realities of doing.

Last week, we (and I use that pronoun with intention) embarked on a project for a stakeholder. The project contains opportunities to use and/or learn the knowledge and skills needed for the work the students want. And some of them are frustrated and angry. They want to be told what to do with the ill-defined problem we have at our disposal as a learning opportunity.

And this is what puzzles me every time I encounter it: Students who want responsibility, want to be hired, want to be promoted...and who want to be told how to do their work. I understand the frustration, as it's a natural part of learning. I don't understand being angry about the lack of a clear path to follow. Perhaps it's because we have not introduced our students to ill-defined or ill-structured problems often enough or early enough:

Education research has shown that an effective technique for developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills is to expose students early and often to "ill-defined" problems in their fields. An ill-defined problem is one that addresses complex issues and thus cannot easily be described in a concise, complete manner. Furthermore, competing factors may suggest several approaches to the problem, requiring careful analysis to determine the best approach. (1)

There may be more than one best approach in some fields, but the "careful analysis" part is required regardless of the field or discipline. And the traditional approach to teaching (three tests and a final exam) rarely require careful analysis of an ill-formed or ill-structured problem. And those are the only real problems I have encountered in my years as an employee, a consultant, an executive, a teacher, or a parent.

In the language of design (or design thinking), the term wicked problem is sometimes used. Complexity may not always be synonymous with wicked or with ill-defined, but the only way to assess the complexity and the degree of (ill)structure or wickedness is to do the careful analysis.

Careful analysis is hard work. The pay-off for doing it well is usually large. The motivation to do it at all is what seems to be in question, but perhaps what appears to be a motivation problem is the fear of failing--because we clearly have not been consistently teaching students how to approach these problems.

(1) The use of ill-defined problems for developing problem-solving and empirical skills in CS1. David Reed, Department of Math and Computer Science, Creighton University.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Picturing failure

Our educational system rewards success and penalizes failure.  To most people, that seems right. We want to create successful citizens able to make well-informed choices, vote, hold jobs, raise families, and make the world a better place.  Yes, we do. We want all of that. That's part of why we provide access to education.

But while we have the best of intentions, we forget that the path from here (wherever that happens to be) to success is paved with failure. Individual failure, collective failure, smart failure, fast failure, failure that teaches us what we need to know and propels us further along the path.   Failure is the part of the scientific method that we tend to forget, as testing a hypothesis requires that we be as open to the possibility of failure as to possibility of success when determining what the data actually tell us.

The mantra to fail fast, fail smart, fail cheap is intended to remind us that failing become less likely to hurt us when we embrace it on a daily basis.  The large and/or tragic failures are sometimes quirks of fate; other times, however, they reflect a refusal to fail earlier, when the stakes would have been lower.

Picture yourself failing, learning from the failure, and making better choices as a result. It's amazing how freeing that can be, whether from self-denigration or the equally destructive criticism of the failures of others.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A marshmallow world

Though not what Carl Sigman, Peter DeRose, Bing Crosby, or Dean Martin meant by the phrase, we created our own marshmallow world in class this morning. Graduate students in a multi-disciplinary course in Innovation and Creativity took The Marshmallow Challenge.  It was engaging, fun, and a good way to start a snowy, cold Monday.

The best educational experiences provide both the experience itself and a tool for later use.  Building a free-standing structure of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow (which must be on top) in 18 minutes is a quick way to illustrate the value of  prototyping, the importance of diverse skills, and the many marshmallows we encounter in whatever work we do. The students enjoyed the challenge and the winning team (all male) sent photos to their moms.

It's a marshmallow world in so many ways.

The winning tower at 28 3/8 inches.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Snow day

Today is a snow day on our campus.  No one is sad about this, with the possible exception of the maintenance crews clearing the sidewalks and streets.  Unlike other winters, this is likely to be the only weather-related closing for the semester.

What does it tell us when students and faculty embrace an unplanned day away from lectures, labs, and office hours? Perhaps nothing more than the appreciation of finding something both unexpected and appreciated--an extra cookie in the package, a bonus in our paycheck, a coffee paid forward by the person ahead of us in line, or an anonymous flower left on a desk.

I wonder, though, if our highly structured and routine lives increase the likelihood of becoming dry and dull in our experience of and openness to the world around us.  I'm still surprised when graduate students write that an assignment for a creativity course is what gave them permission to try something new or revive a passion left unattended. Why do we need external motivators to rise above our lock-step lives?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Teacher or student? Yes.

Some teaching opportunities benefit the instructor as well as the students.  The three years (seven semesters) teaching this one one course have challenged me to be a better teacher, as well as a better person. I'm looking forward to new classes I'll be teaching in the fall, but the students who've been a part of this very hands-on course have a special place in my heart.

Asked to teach this course three times before I reluctantly agreed, my reasons for refusing were that I'm not a sales person (at all) nor an alumna (the target market). When I finally said "yes", I had no idea how much the hybrid business-class model would be challenging, energizing, frustrating, and addicting

The students really do manage every aspect of an ongoing small business. This is both the good news and the bad news, as typically 50% of the students leave each semester (by design) and the compression of the learning is intense. Some of the unique features of this type of course:
  • The business oversight requires experience that few faculty possess. 
  • The academic responsibilities require experience that few business owners or entrepreneurs possess. 
  • Implementation of entrepreneurial vision is limited by the semester calendar, which also creates operational challenges (students cannot be held responsible for the business when they are not enrolled). 
  • The existence of a not-for-profit corporate structure within a state-funded entity to allow students to run a retail business creates complexity and challenge in accounting, procurement, payment (to vendors), student travel, and business operations. 
  • Continuity of processes and institutional memory are ongoing challenges. Though the class has been in existence in various formats for 16 years, the processes, product portfolio, and supplier relationships change quickly enough (sometimes through entropy; sometimes due to turnover) for the current class to be both markedly different from and very similar to those of just five years ago. 
  • Entrepreneurs do not generally travel in packs and star performers (independent contributors) may create management challenges (for their peers) in a venture where collaboration is required for success. 
  • Students who have 4.0 grade point averages have “aha” moments of realizing they may have learned less than they realized in many of their courses. It is common to hear “Yes, we studied that, but I didn’t really get it until just now.” 
  • Students seem to blossom, mature, gain confidence and get it almost overnight. It’s as though a switch is flipped, a neural circuit fires, or they complete a rite of passage that separates them from peers. 
  • Employers recruit students from this program because of the nature of the program.
  • Former students who are recognized across the state (and sometimes across the country) for professional accomplishments credit this program with as being pivotal to their success.
This has been one of my most challenging adventures. I’m going to miss it. But I have every confidence that the river will continue to flow.

Friday, February 6, 2015


It may be an old friend you haven't called.  It might be a long-overdue apology or some other wrong you've long intended to set right.  But the longer you let whatever it is go, the harder it seems--or, perhaps, the harder it actually becomes--to take the much-needed action.

What is that tipping point in favor of (finally) doing versus leaving something to decay in the murky well of intention? I don't know the answer to that question, if there's an answer to be known.  But I know the small choices to do or not to do (Shakespeare's Hamlet who cannot decide whether to be or not to be) define us as surely as a building is built brick by brick.