Reflections on REES

As you know, I have just returned from a 3-week visit to Europe, where a main event was attending the Research in Engineering Education Symposium (REES) in Davos, Switzerland between July 8-10. Before I forget the experience entirely, let me share some highlights.

The conference was attended by about 75 people who presented around 57 papers in an unusual and helpful format: the papers consisted of “extended abstracts,” no more than 5 pages in length, and were distributed in advance. If you attended a session (90 minutes, three papers), you were expected to have read the abstracts of that session in advance. That meant that presenters could remind their audiences of the gists of their papers in a 5 minute preamble, then the remaining 25 minutes were for questions.

Know what the best part was? NO POWERPOINT. The second best thing was that you as a presenter didn’t have much to prepare before your session – it was all done already when you submitted your final abstract. And on top of all this: you actually got to have some interesting discussions.

I found the conference quite invigorating, although not without its faults. Let me share a few points:

The conference opened with not a keynote, but a “Socratic dialogue” where a few people from geographically diverse areas were supposed to orally grapple with some pointed questions asked by a moderator and their colleagues’ replies. The idea was that this mode would help forefront some of the big issues the field faces, and that could then be brought up as a shortcut in subsequent conversations and discussions. This seemed like a good idea except:

  • of the 8 participants, there was 1 (white) woman, 1 African American (man), and 1 non-native English speaker (man). Each of these participants spoke a half to a third as much as any of the remaining participants (my colleague kept track). This speaks to a problem with facilitation.
  • the opening question was whether engineering education was a mature field reaching for transformational change, or whether it was a new field reaching for incremental change. I find this a boring opening question. I think the participants did too, as it didn’t get them anywhere.
  • there seems to be something wrong with an event where only a few are able to speak and most people form a passive audience which is supposed to open for a conference where dialogue and discussion form the main purpose.

It did however accomplish one of its goals, which was to add to conversations throughout the rest of the conference. 😉

Another observation: diversity did not form part of the discussion unless a woman or a person of colour brought it up. This was an eye-opener for me — in this community, with the conversations about underrepresentation so prevelant amongst institutional and industrial leaders, I thought bringing up and talking about diversity would be a no-brainer.

It was also odd to me how so many participants referred to undergraduate students as “kids.” Sure, I realize that the typical student might be construed as someone a lot younger than those who were at this conference talking about them, but I think the use of the word “kid” infantalizes students, and negates any agency and choice that students exercise in their education. This really bothered me, and I said so, but the “kidding” continued.

Finally, it was interesting to me how the conference was framed as a way to discuss how to make some significant change in engineering education. The thing is, everyone was then talking about changing reward structures or developing new journals and what have you; in other words, how do we use existing academic patterns to change communities? I wish someone would start looking to social movements, asking how the civil rights movement or women’s movement came about, and maybe using some of those organizational strategies to argue for change. It seemed to me odd that we should hope for change, and yet use the same old structures of academia to hope for change. Seemed a case of academics in their ivory towers.

I’ll spare you a summary of the papers I attended; suffice it to say that I got to have some very stimulating conversations with new and familiar colleagues, that a colleague and I mapped out some hopes for future collaborations together, and that the hiking was spectacular.

Happy crowd

Some stalwart REESers on a hike in the Sertig Valley.

More photos of this hike and of our time in Switzerland on Flickr. Shameless plug.

Note: Some of this post is cross-posted at Engineering Education: Blogging far and wide on engineering education research.


  1. #1 Andrea Grant
    July 24, 2008

    Wow, I’m having trouble even conceiving of a conference without powerpoint, which is kind of sad on my part. But I guess the topics were somewhat more conceptual rather than just showing plot after plot of data?

    I think the pre-prep aspect is really interesting–I personally learn better from reading than listening, so I find I am uninterested in conferences in general–mostly I’d rather just read a paper.

  2. #2 JC
    July 24, 2008

    Hey ladies – check this out. I can’t wait to hear how morons whack at a study involving SEVEN MILLION STUDENTS showing girls and boys are equal in math. I predict they go after the five women authors (how dare they publish in Science without a man – it’s discrimination, I tell ya).

    Stop the press, here’s the blip:

    DIVERSITY: Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance
    Janet S. Hyde, Sara M. Lindberg, Marcia C. Linn, Amy B. Ellis, and Caroline C. Williams
    Science 25 July 2008: 494-495.

    Standardized tests in the U.S. indicate that girls now score just as well as boys in math.

  3. #3 Zuska
    July 25, 2008

    What an interesting format for a conference! Sounds like it really did provide great opportunities for conversation. I’m not surprised about the lack of diversity conversation, however, unless initiated by an “Other”. You rarely see people from dominant groups initiating conversations about diversity unless they are in a context specifically devoted to that topic. It’s still seen as an add-on, not as an integral part of the conversation.

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