Lifelong Learning

The concept of continual improvement is an established business practice in today’s economy. The idea was founded in the statistical process control methods developed by Walter A. Shewhart of Bell Labs and later generalized by W. Edwards Deming into the PDSA cycle:

  • Plan: What are the desired outputs? What can be changed to achieve the desired goal?
  • Do: Implement the plan and gather data.
  • Study: Review the outcomes based on the collected data (more commonly called the “Check” phase).
  • Act: If the outcomes were meet, act to make the plan the new standard.

Of course, when completed, we return to the planning phase and look for further improvement to continue the cycle. Are we communicating this idea to students and employees? Can we apply this principle to the concept of “lifelong learning?”

Don’t let my timeline limit your path forward

Applying the mantra of “what can I do now” is an effective way to move forward on long, complex projects that may be stuck or delayed. So, before becoming fixated on the finish, focus on how to keep moving so you can get started.

Following that . . . Academic calendars are not very flexible.
K-12 education has been on a fall/spring schedule for over 100 years and, surprising to me, an agricultural calendar was not the driving factor. (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/debunking-myth-summer-vacation)

For better-or-worse, higher education follows a similar calendar although most public colleges and universities now allow undergraduate students to start a program during fall or spring or summer (i.e., they have rolling enrollment) but this is not the case for most graduate and professional programs where a new cohort is formed each year. If someone wants to start a professional program and they miss the application deadline, they will look at the calendar and think there is nothing they can do until next year—don’t let the institution’s schedule prevent you from moving forward.

In the fall, I get emails asking if it’s too late to enroll—and at this point, it is for our program. However, for those wanting to start a graduate degree or certificate program, and it is past the official application deadline, I’ve recommended that they take the opportunity to identify possible gaps in their education or training that may come up during the application review when they do apply. Admission committee’s look at many factors (GPA, letters of recommendation, statement’s of purpose, etc.); however, most are trying to answer a simple question—will this person be successful in our program. Here a few items I’ve recommended to potential students as they navigated the application process.

Enroll in undergraduate courses (for credit) as a non-matriculated student to address gaps between your undergraduate degree and the graduate program. (A non-matriculated has permission to register but is not formally working toward a degree.) Earning a “B or better” can demonstrate readiness for more advanced work in the field and can effectively offset concerns that admission committees may have if a transcript shows underperformance as an undergraduate. If your undergraduate work was sufficient and you meet the pre-requisites then . . .

Ask for permission to enroll in a graduate course (for credit) as a non-matriculated student. If you are able to take a class associated with the program of study, it may be counted towards the graduate degree. But be warned, Colleges and Universities have strict rules for if this may be done and, if it is allowed, how many credits earned as a non-matriculated student can be applied to the degree or certificate.

My advice is pretty simple, even though you can’t start a program now, you can move forward and what looked like a one-year delay may become less than six months.

On being a professional problem solver

I spent one morning on a recent weekend with my oldest daughter at the Tracy Aviary here in Salt Lake City. I never considered myself a “bird” person; however, my daughter’s academic interest in animal behavior has sparked a before unregistered curiosity. Recently, a new space for Kea’s was opened giving the birds a large area and visitors a much better chance to observe their behavior. Kea’s are an olive-green parrot from New Zealand; I had read they were good problem solvers, but I had underestimated what this meant.

During our recent visit, the staff assembled close to a dozen puzzles built using everyday household items–PVC pipe, plastic containers, balls, etc.—each one designed to be solved with the reward being treats falling out when successfully disassembled. As the staff member worked, the Kea would immediately take to solving the puzzle. But here is the strange part—the Kea didn’t eat the treats. He went quickly to the next puzzle. The reward wasn’t the treat, but releasing of the items from captivity.

The reward was solving the problem.

When asked to describe “what I do,” I used to respond that I was a “professional problem solver.” Although my academic background is chemistry, it’s been quite a while since I worked in the field.

As a professional problem solver, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of tackling the most current—often urgent—problem. Behaving just like the Kea.

It’s taken time, but I no longer jump into problem-solving mode at the drop of a hat; I have found looking for meaningful impact to be a more meaningful reward. I wish I had learned this early in my career.

While solving an isolated, single problem has immediate rewards, working on a problem that has impact takes time and requires multiple steps and is part of a comprehensive strategy (i.e., the solution is part of a BIGGER problem). After all, the first part of any good strategy is diagnosing the problem—we don’t design strategy around non-problems.

While we can be amazed at the problem-solving skills of the Kea, make a point not follow his example. We don’t want to be trapped solving problems for rewards that we don’t need—rewards that don’t have an impact.

We don’t want to get caught up in the high-tech version of busy-work.

My current professional role is much easier to define; however, I still consider myself a professional problem solver—a professional problem solver who seeks problems that when solved will have a meaningful impact on either my organization or the individuals I get to work with.

Building New Skills

There is no better gig than getting paid to learn.

In August of last year, I decided to take on the challenge of teaching an applied statistical techniques course—one small problem—I’m not a statistician. Like most scientist and engineers, I’ve used (and abused) statistics all my entire career, so I do have experience with the concepts. Also, my math skills are not too shabby as I have incorporated calculus, differential equations, and other advanced topics into my work over the years. (Yes, some people do use algebra.) The good news? I had about four months before the first day of class and enough control over my schedule where I could commit 10+ hours per week to develop the course content. The real challenge was to create the course using R, a language, and environment for statistical computing and graphics. Being open about my own abilities, I was not proficient with this language.

With this in mind, I set out to create the course—with emphasis on the “applied” and “techniques.” Starting in the fall, I developed a module that students would work through each week. I estimated my 10–12 hours of work each week would translate into the three hours of material for each class and this worked out surprisingly well.

The course is coming to an end this week, and the best part of the experience was how much I learned (or maybe relearned). But most surprising, it was how much I learned the SECOND time I worked through the materials during the weeks I taught the course.

I classify skill sets at three levels:

  • novice: apply basic principles to solve structured problems,
  • hack: gather external resources to solve moderately complex problems,
  • expert: apply advanced principles to solve complex problems with the minimal use of external resources.

I still consider myself a hack when it comes to performing statistical analysis using R, but having the opportunity to expand my own skill set and providing a framework for others to learn something new—that was a great gig.

Kindness

It is an unfortunate truth that as you get older, you start paying more attention to the obituaries than when you were young.

I recently read about the death of a someone I have fond memories. I hadn’t seen this person in probably 25 or 30 years, but as a young man, they had a significant impact on how I should view the world—to be kind.

Every once in a while we need to be reminded of the events and people who shaped our lives for the better. An obituary is a final remembrance. As I was recently reminded, obituaries are about life. In this case a reminder to embody the kindness that was shown to me as a young man and how it was shown to others.