In the Classroom with Robert Kirkman
In 2012, after teaching at Georgia Tech for 10 years, School of Public Policy Associate Professor Robert Kirkman was starting to feel frustrated with what he saw as a lack of student engagement.
Searching for answers, he attended a Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) workshop on problem-based learning, which prompted a major overhaul of his teaching method. One year later, his excellence in teaching was recognized with a Hesburgh Award Teaching Fellowship and the Eichholtz Faculty Teaching Award.
“It finally dawned on me that there was a mismatch between what I understood my students needed and how I was designing my courses,” Kirkman said. “One of the vices of philosophy is a tendency to think of teaching it as preparing students to become philosophers. Even though I knew better — especially when I came to Georgia Tech and none of my students were philosophy majors — the way I used to design my courses was patterned after the classic lecture-discussion-essay, with heavy readings in theoretical philosophy. That wasn’t really engaging students. Surprise, surprise!” he joked.
Kirkman’s lightbulb moment could not have come soon enough.
“I came out of that workshop simply buzzing,” he said, “I spent the entire summer of 2012 revising my courses from the ground up on the model of problem-based learning. I jumped in with both feet in the fall of 2012.”
Kirkman’s first semester teaching Ethical Theories (PHIL 3105) and Environmental Ethics (PHIL 4176) with the new approach was a hit.
“There was an astonishing jump in student engagement in the course. Students actually showed up, many of them had read the books, and they were engaged in their groups,” said Kirkman, who also is director of the Center for Ethics and Technology. “Then I started hearing anecdotes about how the courses were changing the way the students would hear the news or experience their other classes. They also started to think differently about their experience during internships or in the labs.”
Kirkman said he has not looked back except to see where he could tweak the new design, and he is developing a textbook on his approach to ethics, calling it A Field Guide to Basic Values. He is also working on journal articles and conference presentations.
Kirkman said students entering his ethics classes are already in development as people capable of ethical responses to situations. His job is to help them develop further.
“It’s not that I can promise to make them ethical people if they aren’t that already,” he said. “I do think I can help them get from their current level to the next level, where they will have certain skills — to recognize values, process values, and analyze values in complex situations — they didn’t have before.”
In Kirkman’s Engineering Ethics course (PHIL 3109), he has groups of students work on projects in which each group of students develops a problem situation focused on an engineer who must make a decision with ethical implications.
“The students have enough experience to come up with very interesting problem situations, based on things they come across in other classes or during their internships or co-ops,” Kirkman says.
The groups work through a structured process to investigate the background of the situation, develop options, and then consider each option in terms of basic ethical values.
“I don’t have them write essays because essays tend to become just ways of reinforcing your opinions. Instead, they write ‘considerations’ of two options for responding to the situation. They do not draw a conclusion, but they trace out the positive and negative implications of each option,” he said.
The students go through the entire process twice during the course. There are numerous assignments during the semester, and Kirkman gives the early assignments less weight than the later ones — where they have more confidence.
Reaching the Students
This semester, Kirkman is teaching one section of Engineering Ethics (PHIL 3109) and one section of Environmental Ethics (PHIL 4176). Most of his students are from the College of Engineering because both courses are on the list of courses that fulfill the ethics course requirements for engineering majors.
“The students often come in skeptical and slightly aggrieved because the class is a requirement. So, part of the hurdle is convincing them that this course will be
useful to them in their professional lives,” Kirkman said, noting that he tries to convey to them that engineers work with people and for people on systems that can have serious implications for other people — for good and for ill.
“I got my students’ attention on the first day by having them work on a fictionalized version of a historic ‘disaster case’ involving the construction of a TV antenna. I used that case to drive home the point that when you’re making decisions as an engineer, it’s never just a mathematical puzzle; it’s never just a technical solution to a technical problem. It is real,” he said.
Advice for New Faculty
Kirkman first stepped into a classroom 24 years ago this fall as the instructor of record for a philosophy class at Stony Brook University in New York.
“I now joke that I’ve been teaching for 24 years, and I think I finally may be getting it right,” he said.
“My advice to new faculty is to be very, very clear regarding the stated learning outcomes for the course,” he said. “In the syllabus, you should have a section that states: ‘By the end of the course, you should be able to X.’ Think critically about that. It is important that the learning outcomes fit what the students are capable of achieving in a semester and that the design of the course matches the desired learning outcomes.”
He also encourages new faculty — in the interest of bringing about those desired outcomes — to experiment by breaking out of the old modes of lecture.
For him, it’s all about keeping things fresh: “What keeps me excited about teaching now is the process of designing the course — trying to make it better every semester so my students are more engaged,” he said. “By the end of the semester, when students begin to be able to talk about basic values with some proficiency, that’s encouraging to me. It keeps me going.”