Another Airport Land Speed Record: Can My Students Make Their Connections?

As I was running through San Francisco Airport last week, I was thinking many things. Among them were:

  1. Why am I running through yet another airport?
  2. How long will it be before my bad knee gives out? (Surgery last November)
  3. Is my wife still behind me?
  4. Do I ever do this to my students?

Two people running through an airport.

The reason that I was, once again, running through an airport was that delightfully evil concept – the legal connection. This is the minimum connection time estimated for your incoming and outgoing flights, through a given airport. When your travel organiser goes to make flights, they plug all of your destinations and restrictions into their computer, add some seriously manual machinations, and then receive a set of results that all meet the legal connection limits. These are connections that the airlines say are legitimate and, if you miss a flight, they will assist you in making another one. There’s only one problem with the so-called legal connection. Any variances to the schedules, caused by weather, delay in customs, late arrival of other planes, maintenance or unexpected construction in the airport, can make it hard to impossible to make your (so-called) legal connection. Hence, I run a lot in airports. I very rarely miss planes but I run past a lot of people who do – people who don’t know that there’s only one bus every 40 minutes between the international and domestic terminals. People who don’t know where the bus is or that it’s more reliable to catch a cab. People who don’t know which way to go and there isn’t enough signage to assist – Frankfurt Airport, with your sign that says ‘Terminal X this way” and a sign that points in both directions, I’m looking at you.

On this occasion, my knee held out and my wife WAS behind me, which is just as well as the hotel is booked in her name. But it really made me think about the layout and structure of STEM curricula. We set up pathways through our courses that are designed to develop knowledge and produce a graduate with the right combination of skill and knowledge. But what else do we assume? If we have provided bridging to bypass a pre-requisite, are we secretly assuming that the student will have aced the bridging or just passed the bridging? Do we introduce Boolean algebra in second year because “almost every student will have enrolled in Logic I” even though it’s not formally part of our course progression?

We can look at our programs as being legal connections, but with that comes all of the darker aspects that this entails. We’ve recently redesigned our curriculum, just in time for curriculum 2013, and part of this was removing some of the implicit assumptions and making them explicit. Providing pathways for the less-experienced. Matching expectations so that a Pass in a pre-req was sufficient for the next course – you didn’t need 60. We build giant pyramids of knowledge throughout our courses but, of course, a pyramid only works one way up and is far less stable if we don’t have all of the supports. If too many of these building blocks are assumed, and not explicit, then our legal connection is next to impossible to make. And we all know what the cost of that is.

I don’t want to run through anymore airports, and I strongly suspect that when we ask our students to do so, we lose a fair few of them on wrong turns or leave them stranded somewhere along the way, without ever making their destination.

2 Comments on “Another Airport Land Speed Record: Can My Students Make Their Connections?”

  1. Darlena says:

    That is definitely the case in my district! The pressure to make sure our kids have been exposed to the necessary content before state tests means we race through the material, surely leaving some lost.


  2. Alex H says:

    It makes me think of the days before online enrolment, where in order to enrol (at least, at one university you’re familiar with), each student had to get their choices approved by a course adviser. In other words, there was a mechanism for checking that the “legal” connections were appropriate for each student.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s