Dr. Jennifer O'Neil, Assistant Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology, is a 2022 KEEN Rising Star. The following is taken from her interview with Engineering Unleashed staff.
Dr. Jennifer O’Neil didn’t always know for sure where she wanted to go.
“I’ve always been interested in K-12, STEM, engineering, and how engineering integrates into the rest of our lives, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be a K-12 teacher, an engineer, or a faculty member. I was given advice to be an engineer because that would open up whatever doors I wanted.”
Then two big things happened.
While pursuing her PhD at Purdue University, Jennifer participated in numerous volunteer and K-12 STEM programs to try out fun activities to teach basic concepts. The National Science Foundation Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (NSF GK-12) was a social program for graduate engineering students to bring their scientific research experience to K-12. Thanks to Purdue’s relationship with the Lafayette, IN school district, Jennifer did co-teaching with a 7th grade science teacher.
“We worked together to integrate engineering topics into science. The teacher would give me what she was teaching, and I’d get the students to see the curiosity and connections part - and now, looking at the entrepreneurial mindset, that’s what we were doing! - getting them curious about the world around them, seeing the connections between engineering and everything else. Here’s a real historical event, here’s the engineering part, here’s where science came in.”
That was one of her a-ha moments.
“I didn’t learn things this way in school. I didn’t do well because I had to do it exactly the way the professor wanted, and my brain just didn’t work that way. Now, with the K-12 experience, it inspired me how to teach differently, to realize I could do better with my own courses.”
The second a-ha moment came when Jennifer was given a binder of PowerPoint slides, walked into her Thermo class, and had a classroom of students saying, “I’m going to fail.”
“And we hadn’t even started yet!" Jennifer recalls. “Something had been broken that needed to be fixed."
She was aware of how important someone's mindset is, including how people don’t succeed in an environment where they think they’re going to fail. "As an undergraduate I did tutoring to understand where students needed the most help. I observed different teaching styles my entire student academic career. When I was finally exposed to KEEN as a new faculty I instantly thought, these are my people! I fit in.”
And that, says Jennifer, was the missing puzzle piece. “All of my life events since elementary school were leading to this moment. This was the piece that made everything make sense, from the language to the mindset itself.”
Jennifer believes a mixture of teaching methods works well in the classroom because not everyone learns the same way. In fact, she prefers to put more ownership on the students to manage their learning.
“I give students basic fundamental concepts, and then expect them to use that as their foundation to go above and beyond technically. I expect them to go learn how to apply concepts for a variety of applications and to ask questions if they don’t know something. Because when you’re out on a co-op or in a job, you’re not going to know everything, and you need to learn what to do when you don’t know something. I know it’ll be uncomfortable, but in the end, you’ll be a better person for it.”
Her power plant project in thermodynamics is one of her favorites. Students are small companies and compete against each other to design the “best” power plant, considering environmental, economical, and societal factors.
“I guide them through the 3Cs. For creating value, I ask, ‘Who are you creating value for? You’ve got different stakeholders; what’s your approach? Can you satisfy all of them?’ It’s great to see how the student teams take different approaches. For connections, they have to take the basics of what we did in class and connect them to more advanced topics or other courses. Some have taken Engineering Economics, for example, and they see how that comes into play. And for curiosity, I make it so their power plants can’t be profitable if they just follow the basics I gave them. The carrot I give them is, ‘You go out and find what new research is being done, then propose which path is a valid one to take.’ And they’ll go look at the latest solar tech, coal tech, etc., and explain what they chose and why.”
This helps students see what’s new out there. “Students will go work in power plants and come back all prepared. They are more successful.”
Smaller activities work well, too. "I like to do a lot with food. For example, the first week of semester, I’ll do a marshmallow activity, a potato, ice cream. . .I bring them back throughout the semester as we learn about more topics. With a potato, we’ll apply a general energy transfer at the beginning, but by the end we should be able to do a specific heat transfer process with a detailed analysis and discussion. I refer to that as connections because we relate that to what they know: As they build their knowledge, the potato is an actual object that they know, so they can talk about heat transfer in a very simple way."
What brings joy to her work? When students have their own a-ha moments.
At RIT, one of Jennifer’s students wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision with his academic major and felt lost. Jennifer had him as a freshman and again as a senior.
"We’d integrated entrepreneurially minded learning into our first-year course, so he immediately had the 3Cs. He said he loved it! He now thought he’d made the right choice. He graduated and is still happy with his decision."
Jennifer also recalls two distinct moments when she was at WNE. One of them was a student who came in, sat down at the back of the class, and said, "Just feed me like you have a spoon." She responded, "Absolutely not." By the end of the semester, he was highly engaged and loved the course. They still keep in touch.
The other moment involved a student who said, "I’m a C student and that’s all I will ever be."
“And he was a senior!” Jennifer exclaims. "The sad part is, this happens a lot, and faculty also let themselves think, 'They’re always going to be a C student.'"
Instead, Jennifer says, faculty should be working with the student. "I sat down with him and said, ‘You don’t have to be a C student. Is that a choice you want to make? Or do you want to put in the effort and try new things? If so, I’ll work with you.'"
The student chose to try. "He put in a lot of work and got a B! One of his comments at the end was, 'I spent my academic career not getting it, and now I finally understand.' It’s the fear of failure that makes students not want to try."
That’s one of the biggest benefits of changing their mindset, says Jennifer. "Now that student has the confidence that he can go out and be an engineer. That’s what brings me the most joy, seeing that large-scale transition.”
How do you inspire students to succeed? In her 2019 KEEN National Conference plenary talk, Jennifer shares how to move students from defeat to enthusiasm.
Jennifer is passionate about preparing her students for the world. This includes looking at the world in such a way where they’ll always remember to find the joy around them.
“I do this with my own kids and in fact, learned it with my students - KEEN and my students helped me with parenting! - it comes back to that mindset: My role as faculty is to prepare students for the world and that goes beyond just their career. When they enter the workforce, yes, they need the technical expertise, and I prepare them for it; my course is rigorous because I want to make sure they know what they need to know and be intelligent when they talk about things. That’s the first thing I tell them: I’m here to prepare you.”
But there are a lot of other aspects that can influence student careers and decisions they’ll have to make. Work-life balance is one such aspect.
“I’m a very open person in the classroom. I don’t overshare, but I tell them what’s going on in my life and how I balance my career with what I like to do. My research is not in thermofluids, it’s in spray physics. So I tell them, thermofluids is my hobby; spray physics is my research. I’m really passionate about engineering education, so my teaching and my courses are one of the most important things in terms of my career, because it’s my job to make sure they can be the best person they can be.”
How does she do that? “I have to inspire this passion to be a lifelong learner. You want to be a lifelong learner if you enjoy learning. If you enjoy what we do in the classroom, you’re more apt to continue doing that when you leave. When I look back to my memory of courses that didn’t work for me, I never wanted to go near those subjects again. I want to make sure people enjoy what they’re doing.”
Jennifer is dedicated to working with her colleagues. “When I was a student at RIT, there wasn’t a great deal of collaboration between the College of Engineering and the College of Engineering Technology (ET). Engineering was more theoretical, where ET was more application. When in reality, they just have different approaches to the same topics.”
When she came to RIT, she had a plan ready to go. “I said, here’s KEEN, here’s what I’m doing in my courses and how it compares to a standard curriculum, here are the benefits my previous students have talked about, and here’s how I think we could approach it with the two colleges, Engineering and ET. This is a great opportunity for ET to partner with the College of Engineering.”
Jennifer has seen this unfold. “Bringing KEEN on campus has really helped to create this strong partnership between the colleges. We’d never had that before. Now we’ve got people talking across the colleges, collaborating on research and on content. It’s been a huge benefit.”
The impact on students is immense. “Now we’ve started integrating KEEN into the curriculum in both colleges. We had people from Math and Physics come to ICE workshops (Integrating Curriculum with Entrepreneurial Mindset 1.0 (ICE 1.0)) and look at courses to support their students. With the entrepreneurial mindset, student retention, engagement, and knowledge have improved. They are able to make connections, see the whole picture.”
Did the pandemic slow any of this down? “Now we’re back in our usual environment in class after two years of not being there. But during my first review, the students proved to have remembered a lot more than I expected! This shows that what we’re doing with KEEN makes the curriculum better.”
What’s next? “The next step is to target high-drop/fail-rate courses and make sure they have the entrepreneurial mindset integrated. My college historically gets a higher percentage of 1st generation and minority students who are at higher risk for not being retained. Our hope is that by integrating mindset with technical content, it will help our students stay in engineering and at RIT.”
How can faculty get involved with the larger community focused on the entrepreneurial mindset? Jennifer shares her experience:
“I love the content sharing aspect. I love connecting with people at events. The KEEN National Conference was the best way for me to get started, from the networking games to the interactive workshops. I love learning from my colleagues and hearing about how other people teach their courses or have set up their curriculums."
What about for faculty who can't get to a conference? "Any of us can benefit from mentoring, and even just talking about teaching generally.”
Let's take a sneak peek of what Jennifer hopes to do with her award funding:
"I am torn between working with our 1st year curriculum or Mechanics! Both are areas where students struggle. In the 1st year curriculum, I had already brought in collaborative activities with the 3Cs and an introduction to each one. I want to drive up collaborative problem-based activities. If we frame them around social problems with better-defined hook statements, students might be even more engaged. And if we had a problem that fit in with all the courses, such as drinking water, a common social problem, or an engineering grand challenge - what can we do with it in an intro course, then in Materials, then in Mechanics, etc. I'd like to see where the trouble spots are, where students aren't understanding something. I can bring in the entrepreneurial mindset and make the tougher subjects easier to digest."
There’s a place for students who have already taken her classes. “I like to have seasoned students come back to class. Like with the power plant project: Those students become the stakeholders who choose the winning projects! This also helps current students get to know those advanced students.”
“As we change curriculum,” Jennifer says, “I’d like entrepreneurially minded learning to be infused.”
Jennifer will keep being involved with faculty development, both at RIT and within the network. She has also gone back to her K-12 roots with her involvement on a Project Lead the Way (PLTW) advisory committee to share expertise and best practices on the importance of the entrepreneurial mindset and engineering. Jennifer’s journey started as a student in a PLTW classroom, so to be able to give back in a meaningful way is fulfilling. She hopes that by sharing what she has learned through KEEN will help K-12 students have those “ah-ha” moments and pursue careers in STEM.
“The entrepreneurial mindset gets rid of siloed thinking,” says Jennifer, “such as thinking ‘I am this kind of engineer, I know nothing about finance and I don’t have to.’ I tell my students that this is not how it works. You have to work with everybody and understand what they do.”
She sees this manifest in class. “Engineers are extremely stubborn and don’t want to hear other views! We work through this in the power plant project. The student teams say, “I want to do it this way, but they want to do it that way. Who’s right?” And I tell them, ‘You both are! You have to come to an agreement.’ For it’s not just about who has the best design. It’s also about what the regulations are, and who your community is.’"
The mindset helps out in the real world. “I had a student who did a job interview for a full-time position, and they asked about team projects. He was able to talk about the power plant project and all of its dimensions and components. The company said, 'You know about the financial side, the government side - you’re exactly what we’re looking for!' And he was hired on the spot.”
What advice would Jennifer give students?
"Find the faculty who integrate the entrepreneurial mindset and take those courses. When you are in industry, give back to help continue building mindset in future students."
What advice would she give faculty getting started implementing the entrepreneurial mindset?
"Start small! You don’t need to make huge changes to have an impact. Even just adding thoughtful questions or changing homework problems will start to build mindset. And take advantage of faculty development workshops. I've had faculty who did not want to do ICE 1.0 because they didn't want to have to do the yearlong module. I said, 'Do the workshop, and then let’s just revamp your homework assignments, one a week. It’s better than doing nothing.' So the faculty member revamped homework. And then he sat in on a group discussion and heard what everyone else was doing. He realized he could easily do more. He was already seeing the positive changes in students just from rephrasing problems with entrepreneurially minded learning."
What about that all-pervasive lack of time?
“I set a timer! I look through EngineeringUnleashed.com for twenty minutes or half an hour while eating lunch as a brain break. I favorite the cards I find, and then the next day during lunch, I read one of them. By the end of the week you might have something you like.”
Jennifer leaves us with this thought. “This comes from my personal experience. I only have so much time in a day, so I want to do things that make my life filled with joy. As in, I like my career and I like working with KEEN. When I interviewed at RIT, I told them this is what I want to do if I come here: I want to integrate the entrepreneurial mindset into my courses and bring KEEN in, and I want RIT to be on board. So I want to make sure I can work with the Network and faculty no matter where I am. I want to make my class so enjoyable that students wouldn't want to miss it.”
Jennifer credits ideas she found through Engineering Unleashed, such as: