Beth Carle

Beth Carle Headshot

Beth Carle is an Associate Professor and Faculty Associate for Continuous Improvement in Mechanical, Manufacturing, and Electrical Mechanical Engineering Technology in the College of Applied Science & Technology. This month, she shares with us how she uses complex problems and “play” to teach critical thinking and design skills. Read her answers to a few critical questions here:

How do you teach applied critical thinking?

I like to pose ill-defined problems with varying levels of complexity and definition depending on the level of students. I primarily teach freshmen where my critical thinking goals are getting them to observe critically and ask good questions. For example, in a freshmen lab students are presented with samples of a novel material and tasked with developing a way to quantify a property relationship they have never seen before. The crux of the activity is for the students to recognize there are no step-by-step instructions. The instructor models how an expert might approach the problem. The freshmen struggle and are encouraged to “play” with the material to observe qualitatively how it performs and, then, ask themselves and each other how they could quantify their characterizations. Each student develops a set of test instructions and a designs a test fixture. The students evaluate their own design concepts and each other’s for feasibility; the designs reflect the limited background of freshmen and yet many could work.

This same problem was posed to a group of seniors. While the incoming students relied heavily on basic mechanical systems the seniors used more advanced systems. The seniors also asked better questions to define the parameters of a valid solution reflecting their greater technical and critical thinking “toolboxes” compared to incoming students.

Why do you think applied critical thinking is important in your domain?

Critical thinking is important in every domain. Engineering problem-solving clearly applies many aspects of critical thinking: evaluating information from many sources to determine the real problem to be solved and the constraints, developing and evaluating possible solutions and the possible ways these solutions could fail, working in teams, and communicating to various groups. The key to success is to realize that every solution and development impacts people in expected and unexpected ways. Questioning various perspectives and assumptions, hopefully, leads to better solutions.

Can you share a story where quality applied critical thinking was key to your success?

I was tasked with taking our department’s three intertwined BS engineering technology programs through ABET accreditation last year. This involved leading a small group of faculty to develop and implement a continuous improvement program that would take us through accreditation and continue thereafter. I wanted to include most faculty in developing meaningful assessments and using them for continuous improvement; the continuous improvement program is the faculty’s not mine. Designing and implementing our continuous improvement program drew on many aspects of critical thinking: teamwork, communication with all stakeholders, examining and revising ideas until acceptable solutions were developed, and balancing resources. I also drew on my background as an ABET Program Evaluator to look at our processes through the perspective of the evaluators who would come evaluate us. While our programs were all successfully reaccredited I still look at what we developed and see lots of opportunities to continuously improve our processes.

How do you use critical thinking in other areas of your life outside of RIT?

As an engineer I tend to look at the world through the lenses of the questions: “why was something done/made/designed the way it is?”, “what are the implications?” and, then, “how could it be better?” Asking myself and others these questions can lead to some interesting discussions, and can drive my kids crazy.

Any last critical thoughts?

I’m afraid that thinking critically is being replaced with being critical of others in ways that negatively affect many aspects of our life. Critical thinking and critical discourse do not include personal criticism.