What do Arduinos have to do with Student Affairs?

By: Jennifer Clark, Student Success Coordinator in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering at Montana State University

As a student affairs practitioner, it is helpful to explain our work and its value to student success in many languages. In my student affairs work in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, student success is desired; but let’s face it – engineers are often much more comfortable solving hard problems that are easily solved with math and science than messy problems that involve students, their emotions, and the back stories they bring with them to college. Regardless of the recognized value of the student success perspective, the language is unfamiliar and might even be described as foreign…but it can be acquired.

A MSU Engineering student helps Jen.

Recognizing the need to gain a deeper appreciation for the logical, ‘law-abiding’ language so familiar to engineers, I spent the last few months delving into the engineering design process through a computer hardware and coding project using open-source Arduino tools which support developing engineers and computer scientists. I was guided by my understanding of student success and pitched a ‘walk in their shoes’ concept idea to a few electrical engineering students/professionals. They were THRILLED to help me step into their world for a bit, even though they were not particularly interested in understanding the nuances of student services. At first, the goal was simply to gain a deeper appreciation for the complex nature of engineering as a discipline and as a way of thinking. What I gained was this rich, robust perspective of not only the Engineering discipline, but how to communicate the value of student affairs and the value that listening to students brings to success programs. 

This project became my way of articulating to the engineering community with whom I work why listening to students is important. The Arduino board was the instrument that allowed me to speak the ‘engineering language’ as I shared my learning. Briefly, there are 4 devices on this board; each do something different based on the code that was built in. There is an LCD screen that says, “I Love MSU” with an image of a bobcat; a light that changes between 3 colors; a buzzer that sings a Mario Cart song; and the last is a motion detector. These devices were simple in their action, but behind the scenes required a higher degree of complex and specific wiring and coding triggering the intended response to an action command. Student affairs work has a similar structure, on the surface appearing simple but requiring strategic and intentional planning to ensure student success programs have the desired outcome for the population they are designed to serve. Specifically, the motion sensor on this board provided the best demonstration of why it is so important for student affairs professionals to hear and respond to the needs of the students they serve. 

Looks so simple . . . looks can be deceiving.

As the most complex component on this board, the motion sensor took me some time, and extra help troubleshooting, to realize the pre-coded time delay was creating problems with what I wanted the device to do. It wasn’t until I reviewed for myself how the device was set up that I realized what was happening and that I could remove the extra time delay code. Instantly I recognized that this was the perfect metaphor for communicating to my engineering and student affairs colleagues the value of the student perspective as we work to perfect the practice of student success.

Intending to support success, student affairs practitioners may pre-code experiences, or strategies as best practice, unaware that they are not what students find most valuable. There is a need to engage with students and listen carefully to examine if what has been pre-coded makes sense. Keeping a finger on the pulse of current students within our disciplines allows for recognition that students really need a shorter time delay; or in my case, no time delay at all. By stepping outside my box and learning something new, a door opened, a new language was learned, a gap in understanding was bridged and a way to connect two worlds was created.

Still learning.

Engineering education and student affairs practitioners both seek to solve problems related to student success. Searching to find order where there appears to be chaos, recognizing decisions require understanding of trade-offs in using one method over another, and the willingness to embrace innovation by trying new approaches is using an engineering mindset in student affairs. Through this process it is important to be mindful of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and more importantly asking if there is something else we should, or shouldn’t, be doing instead. Including student perspectives is critical to any design process meant to benefit student populations. By keeping our finger on the pulse of what current, everyday students need, the probability of designing effective solutions increases. This supports mindfulness of the pre-coding we as practitioners insert and the purpose it serves in meeting the overall objective. So, what do Arduinos have to do with Student Affairs? They remind us to be intentional in how programming is developed in order to make the connection for maximum student effect.

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