Engineering faculty learn new teaching strategies in orientation

Engineering education initiative pilot launches this fall and highlights new strategies to present engineering topics and activities

A. Sue Weisler

Bilge Altay, a new faculty member in CET’s Department of Graphic Media Science and Technology, participated in the first KEEN: Engineering Unleashed onboarding event hosted by RIT’s College of Engineering Technology and Kate Gleason College of Engineering.

Orientation Week at RIT consists of academic, social, and housing activities for the 3,000-plus excited new students who arrive on campus.

On another side of campus, faculty members, a smaller but equally enthusiastic group of people, participate in orientation activities of their own.

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As part of new faculty orientation, RIT’s College of Engineering Technology and Kate Gleason College of Engineering hosted a pilot workshop to introduce KEEN: Engineering Unleashed and its entrepreneurial mindset—a national initiative to advance engineering education.

New engineering faculty learned about the KEEN resources available to them and heard from peers at RIT who have successfully adapted those resources for their own classrooms.

“The entrepreneurial mindset combined with an engineering skillset gives students the ‘know why,’ in addition to the ‘know how,’” said Mike Eastman, CET’s associate dean and one of the event coordinators.

This first group of a dozen faculty were part of an on-boarding workshop developed by Eastman and members of a core team of KEEN @ RIT. Several more workshops are planned for the academic year as part of an overall professional development program for faculty. Part of the new program will consist of teaching circles—formal and informal meetings led by faculty already involved with the KEEN initiative—to complement the trends in engineering education toward re-thinking how they present engineering coursework and developing graduates able to solve global problems.

In 2019, RIT joined the KEEN network, a collection of national universities focused on advancing engineering education. Faculty have engaged in the organization’s workshops and hosted KEEN trainers on campus. Three faculty have been recognized as KEEN Fellows for innovative classroom practices. Several faculty have connected with peers across the network on course and classroom materials development as well as collaborating on research opportunities.

“This is a faculty-driven, faculty-led initiative and a way for them to take a deeper dive into ways to improve learning outcomes,” said Matt Marshall, KGCOE’s associate dean. He and Eastman are part of a core team with Jennifer O’Neil, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology in CET, and Beth DeBartolo, associate professor and KGCOE’s director of the multidisciplinary senior design program. The group has shaped a long-term program to further enrich both faculty pedagogy and students’ academic achievements and eventual careers that contribute to society. “This is thinking in a different, more wholistic mindset.”

The mindset includes viewing classrooms as problem-solving studios and opening classes with intriguing questions such as “Did the New England Patriots cheat?”

Patti Cyr, a lecturer in industrial and systems engineering, posed this question to the group during the workshop, one she also opened with during her undergraduate class in statistics and quality control. The New England Patriots were on the hotseat in 2014 when they were accused of using under-inflated footballs in the American Conference Championship Game. Cyr had her students look into standards and practices for inflating official game balls and analyze data of the PSI—pound-per-square-inch—measured for the footballs used during the game. By using storytelling and examples familiar to students, she has been able to help them learn theory and practice by associating formulas with real-world scenarios.

“This is what quality engineers do. Through this activity, the students learn that this kind of thinking helps them learn. They are able to explore connections and curiosities,” she said. This activity and others similar have become a regular part of Cyr’s classes.

Like Cyr, O’Neil is using the entrepreneurial mindset philosophy, but her examples involve pizza and hummingbirds—and both reflect laws of thermodynamics and heat transfer. Investigating cooling rates of pizza or the speed and motion of hummingbirds can be a means to understand complex formulas, develop important data sets for analysis as well as learning to associate day-to-day challenges with problem-solving.

“I tell students early in the course that my goal is to make them the best engineers they can be,” said O’Neil. “What will make them stand out is skills and mindset. I have found that the activities that we do, I can get through more material and the students have a deeper understanding of concepts.”

The on-boarding program will be an annual part of new faculty orientation and part of a larger faculty development program sponsored by KEEN @ RIT. The campus group is awaiting news of a grant from the organization as well as coordinating a variety of professional education workshops and curriculum development initiatives.

“KEEN is a big group and the peer universities involved are those we belong with. They, like RIT, are committed to outstanding teaching and increasing engineering education achievements in STEM,” said Eastman.

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