Austin Xu: Thinking, not doing

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - 10:57am

I’m an engineer. You know, one of those elitist hermits who resides on North Campus and only occasionally takes the Bursley-Baits bus down to chastise those unfortunate non-engineers on Central Campus? Yep. Even worse, I’m an electrical engineer. You know … from the EECS department? I’m one of those snobs.

I believe that being an engineer is just as difficult as any major in “LS and Play.” There may be differences in workload, scheduling and campuses, but at the end of the day, a college education is about learning. Yet I feel “learning” has become somewhat lost in the day-to-day clutter of college lives. For me to fully encompass college, I strive to understand the how and why behind concepts, not just how to solve problems. After all, learning is just the beginning of my journey; an in-depth grasp of the underlying ideas enables me to innovate with a full comprehension of the problem at hand. With club meetings, research, work, term papers and weekly homework sets, “learning” has been overtaken by what I call “doing.”

My mother has always told me that education is the one thing that cannot be taken from me. Wherever I go, whatever I do, a higher education is invaluable. And it’s not because I can memorize an entire chart of Laplace transformations, recite Maxwell’s equations or tell the difference between dynamic and static polymorphism. No, these explicit things — or any of the numerous equations and facts I’ve crammed into my head — are not going to land me a job or even advance my academic career.

You may stop me here and ask, “Don’t you need to know those things to do well?” We’ve arrived at my point. How I define academic success isn’t through a number out of four or even 4.4 (I’m looking at you, Ross), but rather by how much I have thought, am thinking and will think. Because at the end of the day, education comes down to teaching a set of critical thinking skills.

It’s easy to get caught up in “doing things.” But what does this mean? Time and time again, I have heard people say, “Oh, it won’t be bad after I memorize these equations,” or “I’ll just pack my cheat sheet with these equations.” Number crunching. Plug and chug. Is that the point of our education? When we step into the workforce, we have all the resources available to us. There’s no need to memorize the formulas off the top of your head. In the real world, job performance is ultimately measured by how much you think. Once again: thinking. I’m a firm believer that understanding course material, making sure you know how the equations are derived, how the certain relationships are formed or why a certain concept is the way it is serves a far greater purpose than memorizing.

And it’s not just me who thinks that way. Eric Mazur, a professor at Harvard University, felt the same way after testing his introductory-level students conceptually. In his article on assumptions in education, Mazur describes the outcomes from traditional lecture and from an alternative approach where students are required to read the material before coming to a discussion-based class facilitated by iClickers. He found in the alternative approach students were able to better internalize the material, which led to improved performance on both conceptual and traditional problems. While this article was published more than eight years ago, the message is timeless: A fundamental understanding of concepts enables students to generalize their approach to any given problem while honing their critical thinking skills.   

Rote memorization will only get you so far. It might get you a college degree, but it doesn’t advance you as a person. It doesn’t develop the critical analysis skills that are necessary to do any job, let alone an engineering job. It robs you of your time at an institution of higher learning. Having an in-depth understanding of the material presented in class certainly helps. Sure, you may never use 90 percent of the class material, but having that baseline knowledge to build off of serves as the foundation of comprehending high-level problems in the “real world.” By knowing the underlying theory and relationships of the final product or solution, as an engineer I can easily identify problems I may encounter, outline different routes to take and then decide between trade-offs.  

As someone who used the brute force of memorization to get through high school, it is probably hypocritical of me to comment on learning. But the more time I spend here at the University of Michigan, the more success I find in diving deeply into the course material, picking the brains of professors and exploring the world through research. I’ll only be in such an academic environment once, an environment where people are obsessed with learning. It makes me want to learn. Think. Question. Examine. This translates not only in class but also to projects where I can “get my hands dirty” and build something.

My mother was right, but her words need a bit of tweaking. The critical thinking gained through higher education is the one thing that cannot be taken from me. From today to the day I take my last steps on campus, to the day I take my last steps at my workplace, I hope to be learning, exploring and, of course, thinking.  

Austin Xu is a sophomore in the College of Engineering.