Friday, February 1, 2008

Changing study habits of engineering students

This is from ASEE Prism magazine, January 2008, page 24.

"Laptops, WiFi and online catalogues make the traditional library obsolete."
By Henry Petroski

Our engineering library used to be crowded with students studying and doing homework. Toward the end of the semester, with project deadlines and final exams approaching, every seat at every table would be occupied well into the extended hours. Lately, however, the library has been so empty that there is talk of folding this once-busy branch into the newly expanded main library.


Some students used to be driven to the library to get away from loquacious roommates, raucous parties or loud music that was not to their liking. Now, with their own favorite music downloaded into their iPod or similar device, they can blast it into their ears and so mask all other noise. Also, since libraries seem to have become increasingly tolerant of food and drink on the premises - the aroma of coffee, which has replaced that of cigarette smoke in the atmosphere, is seldom absent - all of a student's senses can be occupied and so exclude all distractions.


But not every student with an open laptop in class has tuned out the lecture. On more than one occasion I have had a student volunteer information that I did not have at my fingertips, showing my PowerPoint presentation to be as offline as I was. The student was following along - perhaps even anticipating the next slide - and was supplementing what I was saying with what is available on the Web. Sometimes what the student had found in the digital library was so relevant and revealing that it had to be projected for the entire class to see.

There can be no question that the personal computer has changed the way students and every wired citizen works and learns. It should be no wonder that the traditional books-and-and bookshelves library is a threatened species. In just a couple of decades, the once-staid institution has found its catalogues completely digitized and its books and jounrals increasingly so. The library is trying hard to keep up with the way today's students study and do research, not to mention how professors and other users now work. I know that my way of doing research has changed: I do not visit th engineering branch library nearly as often as I used to. With my laptop connected to the Internet, I do not have to.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His most recent book is The Toothpick: Technology and Culture.

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