Dr. Kaitlin Mallouk, Assistant Professor at Rowan University, received the top award for the 2022 KEEN Rising Star. The following is taken from her interview with Engineering Unleashed staff.
Dr. Kaitlin Mallouk is constantly looking to create value for her students and the instructors she works with. Part of this approach is her willingness to take risks.
"There has not been a single semester I’ve taught where I haven’t tried something new to make the material more engaging or relevant, or my practices more pedagogically sound," she says. "The new stuff doesn’t always work, but I always learn something about what to try next time. I’m always seeking new things to try: Attending workshops, reading Engineering Unleashed cards, or talking to colleagues to find my next modification."
One of her favorite things she's tried is a digital Curiosity Cabinet, based on Joe Tranquillo's adaptation of a phenomenon in the 1600s (see slide 50). Kaitlin uses this ice-breaker as a tool throughout the semester to help her reflect upon and remember her students. She asks each student to create a slide that includes their name and relevant pictures that tell the rest of the class about themselves. Kaitlin makes one, too, with pictures of her family and hobbies:
[Image: Curiosity Cabinet slides from students and Kaitlin.]
Everyone has access to each other's slides. "I teach mostly first years, so it's nice for them to see that there are others who have similar interests to them. And I like to get to know my students as human beings in addition to just 'students'. This also helps me reconnect with who they are when it's time for letters of recommendation."
She's grateful that the education community is good about sharing. "I'm always looking for good ideas; my innovations are me adapting other people’s cool things!"
Innovation is an integral part of Kaitlin's teaching methods as she strives to create long-lasting value.
"The first time I ever taught an entire course on my own, I was subbing in for my doctoral advisor for a semester. I used his PowerPoint slides, and most of the class was lecture. But I did incorporate a new assignment, Air Quality in the News, to increase the relevance of what I was presenting."
These days, Kaitlin says, she uses very little lecture. "I mostly try to encourage my students’ learning through hands-on activities, like designing 3D printed toys that require them to take measurements, make unit conversions, apply statistical concepts, and take into account uncertainty."
Yet she's found there's definitely a balance: Students often expect some lecture, and are convinced they're not learning if no one is standing at the front of the room talking at them!
"I think that's because they have a picture in their heads of what college is, and it’s a professor standing in front of the room. They’re not used to taking charge of their own learning and integrating what they’re doing into their learning. For example, they don’t realize when you’re taking measurements & taking an average, that is practicing and doing statistics."
Even in her short lectures, Kaitlin tries to keep them interactive with classic active learning techniques.
Speaking of being interactive, another favorite project for Kaitlin's First-Year Engineering Clinic course involves statistics, Legos - and kids!
"We ask students to design toppers for Lego Duplo blocks so they can practice measurements, statistics, uncertainty, and CAD drawing. However, we also want students to practice designing with a customer in mind, so I started asking my students to design for my kids. I have the students submit questions for my kids to better understand their wants and needs, and then I film my kids answering the questions. At the end of the project, I film my kids “judging” the Duplo toppers that my students designed."
How does that work out?
"The judging results are often hilarious because small children can be so inconsistent in their preferences! I love the enthusiasm my students show when they’re designing for a specific child and the energy in the classroom as we watch the judging. Also, we found that student teams might have latched onto one thing the children said, but didn't listen to the entire conversation. So the students would focus on their own thing, but the kids would remember they'd said other things. It was a challenge for the students because they could only design once and not talk with the stakeholders throughout."
See more videos from this awesome project! Here we see the kids answering questions from students prior to the design process.
Next, see the kids judging the results from the designs that resulted from the questioning:
As we've seen, Kaitlin loves engineering her pedagogy and her approach to teaching; she finds it challenging, and she enjoys the problem solving process. But she also really loves getting to know her students and forming relationships with them. One of the most important things to Kaitlin is helping all students feel like they belong in engineering, especially those from underrepresented groups.
"It mostly comes down to recognizing students as people and talking to them about things outside of engineering. One of my favorite student comments is, 'Dr. Mallouk is the only professor who didn’t belittle my makeup hobby!' A student in my sophomore class had beautiful makeup and I asked her what products she used. She worked at a makeup counter as a part-time job, and guess what, engineers work at major cosmetic companies. There’s a place for engineers to work with their passions. You might not think of makeup as engineering, but you should. It made her feel welcome."
Office hours can turn into similar opportunities to bond.
"I asked a student how things were going, and suddenly he was talking about how he had to quit the Rowan baseball team so he could focus on engineering, and how that was upsetting because baseball had been his identity for a long time. That student recently texted me to let me know he and his wife are expecting a baby - a first for me! It's so rewarding to have former students come back and update me on their progress and lives."
[Images: L: With Theo Mercurio, RU '17. Former college baseball player and soon-to-be father! R: At an extracurricular student event with Nicola Kosarik, RU '20.]
[Image: With students and their microscope designs - this was a project we piloted in 2019!]
Kaitlin has been called a champion of innovation in Rowan’s First and Second-Year Engineering Clinics (FEC/SEC) and has created socially-relevant engineering experiences such as Sustainable Engineering, Universal Design, and Reverse Engineering of a Net-Zero Energy Building (NZEB). The latter project brings great student engagement because it has direct application to their lives.
"With the NZEB project, students analyze their home to determine its net-zero characteristics. For example, they can relatively easily and inexpensively replace light bulbs in their homes to reduce energy consumption. They also get to explore other parts of the country during the introduction to the project and consider the effects of climate on a home’s ability to reach Net Zero."
When Kaitlin realized that not all students would be comfortable sharing their home's net-zero characteristics, she worked with her graduate student to create fictional scenarios.
Another pivot happened over the pandemic - with an unexpected corollary. "Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I had to move my classes from in-person to remote. While this change was extremely stressful at the time, I was really proud of the approach I took, which really prioritized student wellbeing above all else."
What about these days? “I taught entirely remotely (to both in-person and remote students) for all of the 2020-2021 academic year, and I found the transition back to in-person to be extremely challenging! Last semester was my first semester teaching First Year Clinic II in person with in person students since spring 2019. It was rough. My daily check-ins with a Zoom poll or using Mural did not translate well in-person. I've been working on how to integrate some of those online tools that get students to work together into the in-person world."
Kaitlin credits the Experiential Engineering Education (ExEEd) department at Rowan for being truly dedicated to creating the best experience possible for engineering students.
[Image: Members of the ExEEd department conquering an escape room in 2018!]
"During the semester we meet weekly to discuss how our class offerings are going, and between semesters we often make major and minor changes to our projects as a form of continuous improvement. Beyond ExEEd, I have been a member of the steering committee for the Rowan Teaching Connection since 2014. This is a group that provides on-campus professional development to Rowan faculty and staff in the area of pedagogical excellence. One of the best things we do in this group is have a student panel at our Fall conference so that we can get our students’ perspective on our conference theme. We always learn so much from the students in this setting!"
How does the ExEEd department find the time to organize these meetups, let alone attend them?
"Our department is unique: All of us are teaching the First Year and Sophomore Clinics, so all of our energy is going into those classes. Most of us don’t have other classes to focus on. We also have a culture of continuous improvement, and a leadership structure. The courses have course coordinators who pay attention to the changes that need to happen and facilitate those changes."
[Image: Rowan colleagues at the 2020 KEEN National Conference]
For someone who embodies the entrepreneurial mindset, what did Kaitlin think when she first heard the term?
"I was initially very skeptical about the entrepreneurial mindset," says Kaitlin. "I think, like many folks, I associated 'entrepreneurial mindset' with starting a business. I come from a long-line of small business owners on my dad’s side and had actually taken Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Engineering Enterprises as a first-year at Cornell, but it was much more about finance than innovation or the 3Cs."
So what happened to change her mind?
"I think the synergy with my own work and the entrepreneurial mindset really came when I joined the Community Catalysts. Being part of that group allowed me to see what others were doing and really internalize what folks in the Network mean by 'entrepreneurial mindset,' and recognize that much of my approach to my career shows evidence of having such a mindset."
How else has she benefited from being part of a larger community?
"So many opportunities have come my way having been part of KEEN!" Kaitlin enthuses. "I’ve met some really fantastic people who feel like kindred spirits, first through my time as a Community Catalyst, and then later as I started helping with Faculty Development Workshops. I also appreciate having a community of people who like to spend time thinking about improving the classroom experience for students; it’s always easier to get things done with friends!"
[Image: Learning about Accessible Design at University of Washington's DO-IT Center's Capacity Building Institute in 2017. This workshop led to the creation of a project for First-Year students focused on Universal Design.]
What is Kaitlin hoping to do with her Rising Star funding?
"I have a few ideas floating around right now. One is exploring the long term impact of faculty development workshops." This is a project Kaitlin is pursuing with Cheryl Bodnar (Rowan): How do engineering faculty members apply entrepreneurial mindset professional development within their faculty careers?
"In our preliminary results, we've seen that faculty members who embrace the entrepreneurial mindset - specifically searching for opportunities for change and seizing them - tend to make more frequent changes to their classrooms, thereby keeping up with the pace of change in the job market. We have also seen that these faculty members are investing more effort into larger-scale changes and projects. Interestingly, while these changes are made primarily for the benefit of the students, these faculty members have also expressed that making frequent changes and investing more energy keeps their own interest and passion strong."
Does it seem that faculty don't easily see the connection between how embracing the entrepreneurial mindset for their students' sake also benefits them as faculty?
"I know that when I make changes it’s about the students, but I wouldn’t make them if it didn’t feel right or fun for me, which is probably why most faculty don’t innovate their stuff - or only wait to change if something was a disaster."
"This year I won’t be teaching first-years or sophomores for the first time in my career (entering my 10th year!), so I don’t have any new projects for the courses I normally teach in the wings. But I am very excited to be teaching Effective Teaching in Academic, Corporate and Government Settings to our graduate students and thinking about the best ways to engage them with developing their own teaching styles."
Kaitlin illustrates this further: "From curiosity - wanting to understand how others will be impacted by what you do and design, to creating value: Who are we creating value for? Just our corporation? The greater good? - there are a lot of pieces of the entrepreneurial mindset that fit into the paradigm of engineers thinking beyond the technical. For awhile, so much emphasis was on math and science being the whole thing. But everything - human beings, the Earth, animals - is impacted by your math and science; it doesn't exist in a vacuum."
Any final advice for students?
"Most people can do the technical stuff. It's the people who have a different worldview or approach that stand out. Having an entrepreneurial mindset is a distinguishing feature of really good engineers."
How about for faculty just starting out with the entrepreneurial mindset?
"You don’t have to redo everything at once! It’s okay to change just one assignment, or just one week of class, unless of course you’re planning to change everything anyway. Small steps are fine. Don’t feel obligated to do all the things. There is so much available on Engineering Unleashed that is literally a class period or less."