Dr. Stephany Coffman-Wolph

2023 KEEN Rising Star

Dr. Stephany Coffman-Wolph, Assistant Professor, Ohio Northern University, is a 2023 KEEN Rising Star. Learn more in the below interview.

Dr. Stephany Coffman-Wolph

“I developed my teaching style based on the realization that everyone learns differently. My approach aimed to cater to every kind of learner which, in retrospect, aligns with the mindset of considering various stakeholders. One of the things I consistently practice is providing diverse methods for my students to demonstrate their understanding.”

How did you develop your approach to teaching? How does entrepreneurial mindset (EM) align with it?

I had been a Ph.D. student for all of 30 seconds when they were sort of like, "Now you're going to be an instructor for a course." My immediate reaction? "I don't know what I'm doing." I had been a TA once at that point, and so, in a way, I made it up as I went along.

A significant portion of my teaching philosophy was inspired by faculty I had as an undergrad. At that point in my career, I realized that I learned differently than the stereotypical student view. This view was, "I will lecture at you, and you will magically get information." But I knew that wasn't how I operated. So I developed my teaching style based on the realization that everyone learns differently. My approach aimed to cater to every kind of learner which, in retrospect, aligns with the mindset of considering various stakeholders.

Looking back, I didn't understand as a somewhat unconventional Ph.D. student that this was the path I was forging. I always incorporated a lot of hands-on activities and interactive sessions. And, interestingly enough, years later, I realized I had been doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, and all of it happened quite by accident.

Talk about your teaching methods. What works? How have your methods changed over time? What have you discovered?

Regarding my teaching methods, I place a significant emphasis on understanding diverse viewpoints. Since all my students differ, I consider them as different stakeholders when imparting information. This perspective is similar to how you'd approach any process development.

A big part of my approach is to ignite curiosity. I often assign open-ended projects, aiming to give my students the freedom to explore and discover on their own. This method dovetails beautifully with my experience at Ohio Northern. When they described their teaching approach, I realized it was in perfect harmony with my own. That's why I incorporate numerous elements from it.

One of the things I consistently practice is providing diverse methods for my students to demonstrate their understanding. Often, I'd present them with three or four questions and allow them to answer creatively. This approach has led to a range of responses, from videos and cartoons to flashcards. I've discovered some of my students are incredible artists. Others have framed their answers like a technical interview, helping them sharpen that particular skill set.

I love introducing playfulness in the classroom. I've brought Play-Doh to the class. If there's an opportunity to incorporate a bit of fun, I grab it. My classes are highly interactive. I'm not the type to lecture non-stop for 15 minutes. Whether it's engaging in fun activities, solving problems, or even a game of root beer pong to explain a mathematical concept, I believe in keeping things lively. For example, when introducing the concept of recursion, I'd don the "Cat in the Hat" hat and read the story, "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back," which embodies recursion. Many students fondly recall that lesson.

"It's my mission to craft a classroom environment that's so enjoyable, students look forward to attending, even at eight in the morning. "

Over the years, my methods have evolved. I've become more engaging, more fun, and also more transparent with my students. For instance, if I'm behind on grading papers or if I have other commitments, I'll be upfront about it. I share with them that just like students, faculty members can sometimes be prone to procrastination or other human tendencies. The goal is to foster a congenial, supportive atmosphere where everyone feels at ease.

What’s one of your favorite projects you’ve had students do?

For years, in the programming course I teach, the midterm exam review isn't your typical review. Instead, it's a scavenger hunt. Students get pieces of code, and if they nail it, the code gives them their next scavenger hunt location. This continues, and at the end of it all? They score a tiny two-inch rubber duck.

Now, you might wonder about the significance of the rubber duck. Well, there's this concept in software development: "Talk to the rubber duck." Basically, if you hit a roadblock in coding, you chat with a rubber duck. Explaining your code and your logic out loud sometimes breaks the mental block. And that rubber duck? It's a non-judgmental listener.

This rubber duck thing has been my jam for years. My older students, who later help out as teaching assistants, are always asking, "When are the first years getting their ducks?" Once, a student went to a hackathon in Ohio, and guess what? Rubber ducks were the giveaway! He got one for me and now it sits proudly in my office. It's turned into this thing in our department, and to think I accidentally started it!</p>

That rubber duck scavenger hunt is hands-down one of my proudest projects. I've been running it for close to eight years. Students love it! Plus, it's a cool way to chill out right before midterms – which can be super stressful, especially for the first-years. It's been a game-changer.

What brings you joy in your work?

I just absolutely love teaching. I never thought I would, especially because I'm not into public speaking. But being in the classroom brings me so much joy. The absolute best moments? When students drop by my office. Whether I'm handing them a band-aid, spending 20 minutes helping them debug a complex code, or just chatting about life. There's this squish me toy in my office. Students come in, give it a squeeze when they've had a rough day, give me a thankful look, and leave. Those moments when I feel I've helped someone, even just a bit, are pure joy for me.

What are you most passionate about?

When I started my career about nine years ago, a friend asked me to help with a Science Olympiad event at a middle school. We did all sorts of stuff, from making fake blood with chocolate syrup to crafting murder mysteries with pig's liver. 

Funny thing is, I’m not one to be around kids much; I'm not a parent and being an only child, I don’t have much experience there. So I was mainly there to help as an extra adult. But then, during the event, a little third-grader kept glancing my way. When I asked her what was on her mind, she shyly said, "I didn't know women could be professors."

I was in shock, utter shock. It was the last thing I expected to hear. I'm a second-generation PhD holder. My father has a PhD, and growing up, he ensured that I met many women who also had PhDs. I wasn't aware until later that my parents made a conscious effort to expose me to these role models. As a child, because my father and his friends had advanced degrees, I believed that obtaining such degrees was more common than it actually is.

I told her, "Yes, we can be professors." I pointed to myself and another female faculty member who was with me and said, "I am one and she is too." The girl's teacher joined the discussion, mentioning other female faculty she knew.

This experience highlighted that there's still much work to be done. From that moment, I've made it my mission to be visible in my field, especially for young women. I want to be sure no one ever feels they can't pursue a certain career because of their gender.

Why do you think entrepreneurial mindset is important for engineers to have?

For so many reasons! They often discuss opportunities. When I teach my computer science students about the entrepreneurial mindset, I realize they might not naturally think that way. However, it's crucial they do, especially when considering the broad scope of stakeholders and people in their designs. This mindset is deeply rooted in what they need to succeed in life.

Moreover, skills like communication are pivotal. A common misconception among students is, "Why do I need to communicate if I'll just be writing code?" They absolutely need to communicate. Without strong communication skills, advancements in their careers, like promotions, become challenging.

"Creativity is the backbone of exceptional software. For instance, consider the innovation behind games like 'Angry Birds.' Who would've thought of flinging birds at pigs? Such concepts arise from pure creativity. Innovation often sprouts from this blend of creativity and curiosity."

A recent example I came across was from a friend at a cancer institute. They're developing a camera that mimics butterfly vision to detect cancerous cells. Such advancements demand an entrepreneurial spirit to merge seemingly unrelated ideas into innovative solutions. This mindset is crucial for pushing the boundaries and shaping our future.

How have you benefited from being part of a larger community focused on EM?

The number one thing is learning from other people – seeing what they've done, what they've tried, the good parts and the failures – and figuring out how to improve from that. I remember going to the first KEEN conference shortly after I started at ONU, right before the pandemic. As I sat there, I felt like, "I've found my people." These were folks who thought like me, who I could learn from and share my passion with.

When you're outside this community, and you talk about, say, bringing Play-Doh into your class, you might get odd looks. But at a KEEN event, they give you Play-Doh when you walk in. It's normal. They even have workshops with Play-Doh activities. It doesn't feel out of place.

Being around that group of like-minded people and seeing the great things we can learn and accomplish together – that's been invaluable.

How have you worked with colleagues on your campus to impact students?

I do a lot of different things. I'm on the Diversity & Inclusion committee in our college. And a couple of my colleagues did a KEEN event where they wanted a scavenger hunt. I helped them take my scavenger hunt and adapt it for their event.

I work with Dr. John Estell on a project in our programming class. We're rewriting the 1980s game, Oregon Trail, from a woman's perspective, aiming to remove its problematic elements. Some improvements have been made, especially regarding representation of indigenous people. But in the original game, the woman often gets a random name and is mostly referred to as "mom" or "mother." She doesn't have much active gameplay – she either faces events that happen to her or remains passive in the wagon. We want to highlight that women played significant roles at that time.

Our students have given positive feedback on this project. Some have incorporated their interests into the game, like history facts or period music. There was a funny instance where a student wanted to include dinosaurs. I mentioned they would have found dinosaur bones, and this sparked an interest in the history of the westward expansion.

What would you tell a faculty member who is getting started implementing EM?

Enjoy the journey. That's a big one. It's a great journey, but also don't be afraid to ask other people for help. 

My first semester on campus, I talked a lot with Blake Hylton and Heath LeBlanc. Heath in particular encouraged me to apply for this internal mini grant we had during my second semester. He said if I had an idea, I should go for it. And when I was struggling with the paperwork, he reviewed my draft, helping me improve it. 

"Everyone involved in EM is eager to assist others. So if you're feeling lost or unsure, reach out. There are people ready to help. Totally."

What are you hoping to do with your Rising Star funding?

I really want to do something that helps and impacts my students. I must admit, I've been trying to figure out exactly what I want to do. It was so surprising to find myself in this position; I hadn't given it much prior thought. In fact, when I read the email about it, I nearly dropped my phone, I was so taken aback! It didn't truly sink in until I had a meeting with my university, and the funds were confirmed. So now I have to come up with a plan. 

I want to ensure that whatever I decide, students are actively involved in using that money alongside me. That's as far as I've gotten in the planning, but I'm working on it.

It can be difficult for instructors to show the 2nd C of the entrepreneurial mindset: Connections. You’ve encouraged connections by giving students agency within a project. What are your favorite - or most awe-inspiring - or most surprising - outcomes when students seek out and make connections?

With the Oregon Trail project, musicians got involved and asked questions like, "What was the music at the time?" They also wondered about the books from that time period. As a result, they included little quotes from the various books of that era. Later, some students went on to another class in interactive fiction. Although I didn't teach it, I heard about the impressive work they undertook, which was very much in line with what we did in my class.

In another instance related to programming, I presented a rather unpleasant GUI – it had red with light green text. In Java, designs like these can be off-putting, almost nauseating when you open and close them. I showed it to the students, asking their feedback. One student pointed out that it made him nauseous due to his motion issues. Another told me they couldn’t decipher the text because they were visually impaired, which I wasn't previously aware of.

Later on, a student who remembered our class's GUI critique was working on a project for a friend. He dedicated a lot of effort to ensure the design was impeccable, recalling the GUI mishap from our class. He commented that his friend's website was "horrible" because of the color choices. Seeing him apply the insights from our class to another project, even a year later, was a fulfilling experience.

What advice would you give students about EM and their careers?

I did orientation last year, and I asked all the alumni panels, "What weird skill did you think you'd never use that we taught you, but then you ended up using it all the time in your job?" 

A couple of them mentioned different things from the Foundations course which were all EM based. They hadn't thought they would use those things again. But every single one of them said they do use those skills in their jobs every day. 

That's the thing they don't realize when we're teaching it to them: They often wonder, "When am I ever going to use this? Will anyone ever ask me about this?" But when they get their real jobs, they find those skills are really used in the real world. There's a reason we teach them these things!

So, my advice would be to believe in what we're teaching, give it your best shot, and it'll come back to benefit you.