Why It’s Important That Professors Use Social Media: 5 Questions With Associate Professor Michael Pyrcz
Michael Pyrcz left a successful career in the oil and gas industry to become the resident geostatistics, big data analytics and machine learning guru in the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering (PGE) in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.
An expert in geostatistics, spatial modeling and prediction, he is responsible for teaching the next generation of engineers how to use some of the latest technologies for building data-based models (and making predictions based on those models) in the high-stakes world of oil and gas exploration.
Pyrcz also happens to be one of the most active Texas Engineering faculty members on social media. Recently, he made the unique decision to post every lecture from his Introduction to Geostatistics undergraduate class on YouTube, as well as every demonstration and example on GitHub. We sat down with the Canadian-born engineer to ask why being social matters so much in higher education.
Students attend your lectures and can talk with you directly in your office if they have questions. Why the need for social media to also communicate with them?
For engineers and scientists, social media has become an important vehicle to reach our stakeholders. Twitter, for example, isn’t just politics and gossip, but a self-selected, connected community with strong interest and knowledge-sharing in our scientific fields. For professors, this connected network includes the public and other professionals, as well as students and prospective students. Just as we now consider email indispensable for professional communication, social media is becoming essential for promulgation of scientific work.
Clearly, it is important to you that social media also be used to reach people beyond the UT campus. Why?
Projecting our presence off campus is important. We have a societal responsibility to add our voices to the chorus of scientists and engineers who are promoting education and the use of the scientific method and who are inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists.
I know this first-hand because I come from a low-income family background and decided to become an engineer after a random conversation I had as a kid with an engineering student at a gas station. Not long ago, I participated in a Cockrell School outreach event with BreakThrough Central Texas, an organization that helps students from low-income families go to college. While working with about 100 at-risk local high school students, I learned that I was the first engineer many of them had ever met! I want to maximize my ability to reach these people, because I know education changes lives.
I have many contacts and followers online who are high school kids that I met through initiatives like this. I prioritize responding to their inquiries. Social media provides tools to stay in contact with them after a one-off school visit — meaning there’s more chance of keeping them interested in engineering until it’s time to choose a college major.
Your decision to post every lecture from your Introduction to Geostatistics class on YouTube and every demonstration and example on GitHub was surprising to many. What inspired you to do this?
I have an open-door policy when it comes to student support. I want to give students enrolled in my classes easy access to resources and the ‘tailored-to-the-student’ experience of my lectures.
I realized posting everything online would be an excellent way of providing long-term access. My students love having the ability to review my lectures at their own pace, a benefit that outlives the semester. Several students have contacted me from summer internships for technical assistance. Posting on YouTube and GitHub provides ongoing open access to support that. This makes our students stronger contributors in our industry.
Of course, it is a two-way street. I’ll reach out to this network of former students to look for collaborative partnerships and career opportunities for our students in the future.
UT students pay tuition to gain access to your class and your expertise. Is it fair to share all these educational resources online — with anyone — for free?
That is a fair argument. We must provide our students with value, and I respect that they and their families invest a lot by enrolling in my class. In this connected, digital world, though, I don’t think it’s realistic to try to hold on. The lecture materials, examples, assignments and exams are all digital and are likely distributed anyway. There are student groups and websites that enable this. I post all my former assignments, quizzes and exams with solution keys. By releasing the materials myself, I retain control of the message and delivery.
There is more to it than that, though. The open-source approach is already common in geostatistics, data science and machine learning, more generally. Easy access to educational materials and expertise has helped expand the number of practitioners worldwide while helping to establish those sharing their resources as subject-matter experts. The benefits to students, the scientific community and one’s respective university have been immense.
I also think that we should partner with our industry to support professional development. I get so much feedback from working engineers and geoscientists from industry that they are benefitting from training with my content in their respective companies. Our industry is facing a digital transformation, and we can support them as they support us in so many ways.
How has the open-source approach helped you as a teacher?
There are all kinds of unexpected benefits to being open with my lectures. I like to record them prior to the in-class lecture as I am a new professor, and this exercise helps refine my course delivery. I’m sure knowing that the lecture will be on YouTube drives me to a higher degree of quality control, but it also invites peer review. In one case, I ended up in a discussion with a statistics professor from Germany on content, resulting in tangible improvements. Finally, providing my course material online actually creates more pull for my course. Students can preview the content, see the thoroughness and practicality and then decide that they want to take the class.