Judging by the number of people inquiring about our program and taking tours, the fall 2018 semester should be a good one as far as attendance. The age distribution of these potential students seems to be shifting younger. Today, students in my classes vary in age from 18 to 45, with seemingly equal representation from each age group. However, the tide may be turning.
After teaching here for over 21 years, I’m starting to see that I’m one of the old guys and I feel it every time I look around. Walking down the hall, I see a lot people staring down at their “devices,” white ear buds planted firmly in each ear, and, for the guys, caps turned backwards (perhaps to be able to read those dim screens better). At my age, I’ve given up reading those screens without my readers and my coordination evidently isn’t what it used to be because I wouldn’t even think about walking down the hall looking down at a screen. I might accidentally run into someone else or even an open door.
I’ve heard other instructors lament about “millennials” and the next group, “Gen Z’ers,” but it is now starting to really draw my attention. One example is email. I will email out a message to students on their school email (about an assignment or if a class schedule change) and over half will not read it. “We are actually supposed to check that?” “Email is for old people.” Well, I guess that would be me. Another example is using outdated references. When talking about resumes, I would say, “your resume is like a Yellow Pages ad,” just to be looked at with totally blank stares and the inevitable question, “What is a Yellow Pages ad?” Another example is seeing a student Google answers on his cellphone during a test. “I didn’t think that was cheating.” My fault, perhaps I didn’t make the purpose of tests clear enough.
In all seriousness though, it is obvious that some things have changed. It sometimes feels good to lament with other veteran instructors about things we see, but the truth is that we have to find ways to reach these students and properly engage them in order to create future technicians. Some things I’ve learned. First, they enjoy interaction in the classroom. Instead of just pure lecture, we incorporate activities like “Jeopardy” to reinforce key points. Second, the learning has to have context. Incorporating stories, short YouTube videos and real, working equipment with hands-on learning, makes topics relevant. Third, standing up in front of a class and droning on for an hour is a good way to ensure that I am tuned out early. Talking about something for 10 minutes, demonstrating it, having them do it and then talking about it again for 10 minutes seems to hold their attention and excites them. I ask questions and move around the room to make sure everyone is participating. Also, I respectfully ask that they not engage with their “device” while in class.
Finally, I’ve learned a lot of my ability as an instructor revolves around respect for the student and being a “normal guy” and not be up on a pedestal. Yes, I laugh and poke fun at them sometimes, but I also laugh at myself when I make mistakes. Being human, while it doesn’t make us the same age, shows that I’m a person and therefore more approachable.
I can’t always identify with the stuff they do. Last semester, one student asked me what my favorite video game was. When I said “I don’t play video games”, he asked me what I do for entertainment. “I go outside,” was my response. I didn’t mean it to be funny, but apparently it was taken that way. But, the interaction in the class improved dramatically.
The bottom line is that every generation changes. Those of us in the older generations don’t need to change, but as instructors and trainers we do need to learn to relate. There are literally thousands of articles on this so I will not cite research … just something to think about.
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