Jennifer O’Neil

Jennifer O’Neil Headshot

Dr. Jennifer O’Neil is an Assistant Professor in the College of Engineering Technology. She shares how she helps students develop critical thinking skills by presenting them with ambiguous problems and letting them struggle for a bit BEFORE guiding them on an approach to obtain the best solution.  Read her answers to a few critical thinking questions here:

1. How do you teach applied critical thinking?

I never wanted to have the type of class where students came in, memorized equations, and then regurgitated them on a test. I wanted students to understand what they were learning, why it was important, and how to apply it. I wanted students to really reflect on what they were doing and who it was impacting. To do this students needed to be able to go beyond the technical solution and understand other influencing factors. They needed to be able to connect information not only across topics within my course, but across courses and disciplines. I wanted students to see that communication across disciplines, and with the right people, would be key to their success. To accomplish this I use an active-collaborative environment with a focus on problem-based learning. I turn students loose on ambiguous problems, let them struggle for a bit, and then guide them on an approach to obtain the best solution. Students learn it’s not about the end result, but the process they took to get there. They learn to think critically, ask questions, allowing themselves to reflect, make connections, and develop new perspectives. 

2. Why Do You Think Applied Critical Thinking is Important in Your Domain? 

Really critical thinking is important in all domains and aspects of life. If we focus specifically on engineering, I believe critical thinking is important because there are so many factors that influence a solution. You have a technical solution that is then coupled with environmental, societal, and even governmental influences. Often times there’s no correct technical solution, then with the addition of a number of different factors, this can compound the “there’s no right solution” complexity. People who can think critically will be able to consider all of these factors to determine the best solution when there is no clear answer.

3. Can You Share a Story Where Quality Applied Critical Thinking Was Key to Your Success?

When I was a PhD student working on my dissertation, the funder for the project was insistent that our proposed solution for their problem would never work. Being the persistent person I am, I worked on solving the complex problem by reaching out to other disciplines for their perspective. I gathered information, analyzed, reflected, and put everything together to come to a unique and creative solution. Who knew the knowledge I gained working with a food scientist would help me solve a problem relating to rocket engines!   

4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking in Other Areas of Your Life Outside of RIT?

This past summer I decided to start a new hobby, woodworking, one I knew very little about. My first project, a fire truck bed for my son, was probably one of the hardest I could pick to start with. Even so, I was able to follow instructions and watch videos to learn how to use the suggested tools. The problem I faced was when there was no tool to make the part I needed and the instructions provided no guidance. The critical thinking skills I’ve gained over the years helped me face this challenge. I asked local experts for their opinion, searched for alternative solutions, and used the knowledge I gained over the project to finish!.  

5. Any Last Critical Thoughts?

There is a difference between applying critical thinking and being critical. Teaching students, regardless of their discipline, the importance of this difference and the application of critical thinking is paramount in ensuring we have the right people to take over technical leadership roles.