The Human Side of Engineering
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.”
Working to Impact Students
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.”
Motivating Faculty Mindset
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.”
Rising Star Projects
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.”
What's Next for Jennifer?
“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.
Why Entrepreneurial Mindset Matters for Engineers
“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.”