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#046 Marcus' new ways of teaching technology

The story of Jelle's batting for a better society is a story of Marcus' new ways of teaching technology

Jelle van Dijk is a design researcher. A creative mind who loves to improvise, as if with his knife in the jungle, searching for something without knowing exactly where he is going or which path he will follow. Speaking of remarkable paths, Marcus Pereira Pessoa went from being a military pilot to being a scientist. He too loves to be creative in looking for new ways of teaching. “I think our students are smart people who want to learn and improve. And I don't own the truth: we work on the truth together.”

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Monday 30 August 2021

Military pilot / Academic: “Don’t stick to the plan”

Jelle: ‘To kick off: is there a relation between your current job and how you were as a kid?’

Marcus: ‘Interesting question. As a kid, you get promoted every year. So, every year is different. In my jobs I have always looked for this kind of change. In the air force I reached a point where there was no change anymore. I then retired and moved to academia. It’s perfect for me with its continuous change and new opportunities for learning.’

Jelle: ‘You wrote quite a few things about lean working. Lean is about making small iterations, right? Some may say that you risk leaving parts of the space of possible solutions unexplored. You might be walking in small circles in the jungle without knowing that there is a river and a village close by. How do you keep an overview?’

Marcus: ‘By planning in different layers, for example. In the first layer, you have a more traditional plan, with a number of milestones. In between these intermediate goals you work in small iterations. In the lean philosophy it’s important to always keep in mind the value that you want to create, which is defined in the next milestone. And that you continue to improve by cutting out things that don’t contribute to this goal. By doing so, you add more value and create less waste.’

Jelle: ‘Can you give an example of not working in a lean way?’

Marcus: ‘The easiest example is not setting a clear goal. You must always have a vision of what you want the future to hold. This should be challenging, maybe even beyond the project at hand. Otherwise, you may get distracted by new ideas. You could end up going in a completely different direction and not achieve the goal.’

Jelle: ‘As a military pilot, did you have a lean mindset?’

Marcus: ‘I think so, yes. A mission always has an objective, a vision. You start by defining a plan. But once you are done writing it, all you know is that things won’t go according to plan. It’s just a reference, which you should sometimes even reconsider entirely. There have been projects that were a complete failure, even though they were finished on time and on budget, because the need for the solution had disappeared in the middle of the project execution. Therefore, you must monitor the progress and continuously make adjustments to keep working towards the objective in an efficient and wasteless way. More important than a good plan from the outset is the planning and replanning process – that’s what makes the difference.’

“Once you have written your plan, all you know is that things will not happen exactly according to that plan”
Marcus

‘Similarly, in my courses I prefer not to teach tools and techniques in depth, because when students graduate, there will be new tools. What they need to know is how to select tools, how to understand the problem and how to set approaches to solve it.’

Jelle: ‘That's interesting! But I do think that you need sophisticated skills in order to be able to make the right decisions at the right moment. I often show my students a video about a Japanese woodworker with his tools. It's simply beautiful. What I want to say is: you want to retain this skill-based quality as well, because otherwise everything becomes purely cognitive. We should be careful to lose all common ground. To only train managers, who will go and manage factories, where nobody knows what is actually going on anymore. Do you see what I mean?’

Marcus: ‘Yes, you need to have good knowledge of at least one technique, or one tool. Otherwise, you can’t compare it to other tools that you may use. You would be completely unpractical. But in the subjects that I teach, which are process oriented, the most important thing is critical thinking. My students should be capable of understanding and selecting approaches. Quite often people just start solving. Without thinking even about what it actually means to have a solution.’

Jelle: ‘But you can do critical thinking before and after. I agree that we shouldn’t act like headless chickens. Still, you can start by doing, as long as you have good, critical reflection afterwards. In our technical university, the learning by doing atmosphere is strong, which I really like.’

Marcus: ‘I completely agree. One of my flight instructors once said: when I release pilots for flying solo, I prefer students who made many mistakes during training to the ones who did not make any mistakes, because I don't know how the latter group will react when something goes wrong.

‘In line with this, I flipped one of my courses. Students get their theory from videos and quizzes. During classes we work on a large project, try alternate approaches and get just-in-time feedback. This year’s project was planning the development of a drone to check transmission towers and powerlines. Students were divided into groups that each focused on one subsystem. The groups had to collaborate to guarantee functioning interfaces. I took up the role of programme manager. So we created a professional setting, rather than a teaching setting.’

“Quite often people just start solving, without thinking about what it actually means to have a solution”
Marcus

‘For another course, I am working on a card game, which will teach students how to select techniques during the design and development phases in a project. In a nutshell: the monsters are issues that might arise during these phases, and the weapons are the techniques. To unlock a technique, the students have to take quizzes related to that technique. While the gameplay frames the course progress, the students are graded based on a report they write, in which they reflect on their choices and the consequences.’

Jelle: ‘Cool!’

Marcus: ‘Yeah, let's see if it works...’

JELLE VAN DIJK (1975)

is assistant professor in Design Production and Management at the Engineering Technology Faculty. He is part of the Human Centered Design department. With his project Design Your Life, he devises tailor-made technological solutions for their daily lives in collaboration with young autistic people and their caregivers.

Dr. Marcus Pereira Pessoa (1969)

worked in the Brazilian Air Force as a military pilot and as a project and programme manager. He has degrees in Applied Computing (MSc), Marketing and Entrepreneurship (MBA), and Research and Development Management (MBA). He got his PhD at the Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (São José dos Campos, Brazil). His PhD research focused on integrating the lean philosophy to the product design and development process. Marcus worked as a post-doc at MIT before joining UT as an Assistant Professor in Engineering Management.