She Believed She Could So She Did

I wrote this “Personal Statement” in January for an award nomination dossier.  I would have connected the dots for this class in a new statement but I feel this one does it best, for me.  Tools I’ve learned, and read about, in this class will enhance my skills at being the best teacher I can be.  Above all else, I promise to never stop learning how to be a better teacher.

I hated my high school math teachers.  One asked why I wanted to be an engineer instead of an actress (I loved Advanced Drama class).  The other said, “You’ll never be an engineer”.  Despite their violation of everything teachers should stand for I was certain I would become an engineer.  Thankfully Virginia Tech thought so, too, and granted me early acceptance into the engineering program.

While taking a full load of 18 credit hours per semester I spent my weekends as a ski instructor at a resort a couple of hours away.  Snow skiing was my sport and I was following a long line of instructors in my family.  We taught lessons while it snowed, while it rained, underneath snow blowers, when it was below zero.  The conditions didn’t matter because there was such joy in seeing someone who had never skied before or who lacked coordination “get it” and smile with pride at what they had accomplished with my help.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and was thrilled to address the first two graduation announcements to those math teachers who did not believe in me.  While working my first job after graduation I wanted to find something fun to do in my free time.  I became a math tutor at Sylvan Learning Center.  Two evenings a week, I would sit with students who struggled with math, who did not want to be hanging out with me talking about math.  The challenge did not matter because I found such joy in seeing them “get it” and smile with pride because they finally understood fractions.

My career progressed and I found myself working for a 3D CAD modeling software company.  Part of my job was giving demonstrations about how the software worked.  Sometimes I would be a consultant for a customer and go on-site to help them use the program to design their own products.  The drafters and engineers were not always happy about being told they had to use this new software.  It was not what they were used to and most adults do not like forced change.  It was a struggle to get through to them, sometimes, but it was worth it because I found such joy in seeing them “get it” and realize that their jobs would be easier because they had learned this new tool with my help.

I worked for nine years at an engineering and manufacturing company in roles of increasing responsibility.  It was an amazing learning opportunity because I got to work in different departments including design, quality, manufacturing, purchasing and eventually the continuous improvement group.  I travelled internationally and really learned how to be an engineer during my time there.  I was fortunate to spend about a year there as a facilitator in the continuous improvement group.  That role is part engineer, part motivator, part organizer and part teacher.  We would explain a lean manufacturing principle to co-workers then help them implement it into their department or work area during a Kaizen event.  Most of the time no one was interested in the task, usually because they did not understand that it would eventually benefit them.  I enjoyed the challenge of changing their minds, even if it took weeks of effort because there is such joy in seeing them eventually “get it” and embrace the process improvements we had implemented together.

There was a pattern emerging that everyone in my life, but me, was noticing.  I was a competent engineer, being promoted regularly.  I was pleased with my career but not fulfilled by it.  Friends and colleagues whom I had mentored (or tutored in calculus during lunch) started mentioning that I should be a teacher.  “But I’m an engineer,” I thought.  While I understood that I could change careers and be a high school math teacher, I would have to leave the world of engineering, the topic I loved and had studied, behind, which did not interest me.  So, I ignored their advice for a few more years.

A bizarre and wonderful chain of events led to a lunch with a friend and faculty member in my home department at VT.  During that lunch, I admitted that I felt I had reached a plateau in my engineering career; that strange place where you realize you do not want another promotion because of the added stress and drama it would create, but you also do not want to stay in the same job for twenty more years.  My faculty friend admitted he needed help teaching his class, that he was overwhelmed.  I, half-jokingly, said, “Hire me to help.”  It had never occurred to me that I could teach engineering.  He was very interested in pursuing the possibility that this could work.  Three months later, about fifteen minutes before I learned my company was going to close our facility and lay off all of its employees (including me), I received an email with a job posting at VT for a professor of practice in my home department of mechanical engineering.  I applied for and was hired to start two months later.

Although the pay was significantly less than my former job, I hoped the flexibility and satisfaction I would find in teaching would be worth it.  The first year we had 363 students.  There is no formal training for teaching at the college level so you learn quickly or give up.  Not accustomed to giving up, I jumped in the deep end asking questions, seeking advice, reading books on teaching, and listening to pod casts.  Eventually I learned many things about teaching, thanks to co-workers, and former teachers (not my high school math teachers).  By the second fall semester, I had the mechanics of delivering lectures and assessing students via homework, quizzes, and reports down pat.  Yet I was not feeling the joy my earlier exposures to teaching gave me.  I had become competent at and comfortable with delivering content, which some people call teaching.  This is what my former math teachers did and I wanted to be better than them.

A series of unfortunate events during spring semester of my second year teaching changed everything.  Within about a week I had one student come to me with severe depression, another had just lost his brother to suicide, a third had a parent terminally ill with cancer.  I was overwhelmed with what these students were dealing with in their personal lives and how it was affecting their academics.  That week I said aloud, “What I really need in this job is a PhD in counseling!” In conversations with the academic counselors in my department, amazing women and colleagues, it dawned on me our students needed more than people who could deliver technical content and grade them on their abilities to prove their comprehension.  They needed adults who cared about them both inside and outside of the academic arena.  Sometimes they needed advice; other times just someone to listen.  It was then I turned to the VT Center for Excellence and Teaching (formerly CIDER) to learn more about how to work with better with students.  I eventually found and enrolled in the VT Graduate Certificate Program in Engineering Education where I have learned volumes about truly teaching and not just communicating content.  I will complete my certification in December of this year.

Instead of finding joy in watching others “get it”, I joyously experienced my own ah-ha moment realizing that being a teacher is much harder than I thought.  Now I understood that done well, teaching is a holistic effort of delivering content, compassion, and encouragement.  What I loved about my earlier exposure to teaching was not just explaining skiing or fractions, it was the personal connection formed with students, when I was helping them learn new information by showing them their own potential for success.  This is what it means to be a teacher and an advisor and it is what I strive to do in my job every day.  Moreover, it is exactly what my high school math teachers did not understand.

Can homework assignments and rubrics be copyrighted?

I fully support open access text books and other open access pedagogy tools.  I appreciate using someone else’s slides or homework assignments and I would like to make mine available for others to use.

Please allow me to use this blog post to investigate a situation I’ve heard about.  Faculty member A took over a class from  faculty member B and still uses some of the original homework assignments.  In addition, over the last year a good number of those assignments have been modified based on comments from  faculty member C who demanded them be reworded to better meet accreditation standards – their department is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Faculty members B & C who either previously or recently contributed to the homework assignments in the class have demanded that the copyright logo be added to both the homework assignments and rubrics as a means to prevent them from being used by others without permission.  Faculty member A complained to the department about the request but was encouraged to be compliant.

  1. Can a teacher just add “Copyright 2018. Smith, Jones & Doe” to a university homework or grading rubric and assume it is protected? (I thought you had to file for a copyright)
  2. What could the potential benefits be of doing so?  Isn’t this in direct conflict with the idea of open access?
  3. Can faculty member A refuse to add the copyright?



My mindfullness was wandering

I’ve experienced mindless learning and mindful learning, but didn’t know they each had a name.  Langer’s example of arriving at a destination in a car and not remembering the exact trip there is the perfect example, and has happened to me before.  So has reading several paragraphs, or pages, and having no recollection of what I read (it happened while reading part of one of Langer’s articles, for full disclosure).

I absolutely do not want my students to drift into midlessness during my class.  But I’m sure has happened before and might happen again.  It is a challenge with 400 students in one lecture hall.  In the past I’ve tried to incorporate humor into my lectures.  This is exceptionally hard for me because everyone who knows me will readily admit I am not funny, or if I am it is purely accidental.  I’ve tried to add meme’s to my lectures to keep students interested; sometimes it works, sometimes I’ve inadvertantly chosen one that is outdated (more applicable to my age group than theirs).

What I learned most from this weeks’ readings was that simple changes in wording might be more effective than failed attempts at humor or coolness.  The idea that facts are relevant from multiple view points (the Christopher Columbus and U.S. Civil War are excellent examples) is something I think I can incorporate into my lectures.  I imagine  using an interactive tool, like mentimeter (Dean DePauw uses this a lot), could enhance this approach.


Changing readings to the TedTalk from Sir Ken Robinson, I find it ironic (see what I did there?) that it’s a Britain who so succinctly described the problems in the American educational system.  We are teaching to the test too much.  We are treating each student as if they were the same.  I support his approach of increased individualization.  As he states, though, that won’t work until there is a paradigm shift in our country about how teachers are perceived and treated.  Well before I became a teacher I felt that teachers are as important as, and should be paid as much as, doctors or maybe even professional athletes.  My children and I have experienced some of the best and some of the worst teachers there are.  If teaching was respected and well paid enough that it was highly competitive, only the best teachers would be hired.


Coming full circle on the readings, if all teachers were of that high caliber, the classroom experience would be much improved.  Then I imagine students would rarely, if ever, be mindlessly going through a school day.  Perhaps, like Finland, students wouldn’t drop out of school.

Week 2 Post – Growth Mindset with blogging

My two biggest takeaways from this weeks readings/viewings are:

  • Blogs can be used as part of academic documents (thesis, articles and books) – I had no idea and this is brilliant new information for me
  • the Baby George video by Michael Wesch reinforces a philosophy I learned last year – Growth Mindset by Carol Dwerk.  I love this “not yet” idea and have even shared it with some students, who also loved it.


Title IX Proposed Changes – additional blog post #5

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed modifications to the Title IX regulations as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s November 16th article by Sarah Brown and Katherine Mangan.

There are many proposed changes I could discuss at length but for brevity I’ll only choose one; the new definition of sexual harassment:

The definition of sexual harassment colleges are required to act on would be narrower.The new rules would define sexual harassment to include “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.” The Obama administration defined harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”

Since when did an unwelcome act have to deny a person access to education to be counted as sexual harassment at college?  To provide clarity, I Googled the definition of sexual harassment and this is what I found:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as follows: 

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.  Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.  Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.  

Wikipedia defines sexual harassment as follows:

Sexual harassment is bullying or coercion of a sexual nature and the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors.[1] Sexual harassment includes a range of actions from mild transgressions to sexual abuse or assault.[2] A harasser may be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a client or customer. Harassers or victims may be of any gender.[3]

Merriam-Webster defines sexual harassment as follows:

uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (such as an employee or student)

In none of these definitions is sexual harassment further restricted to apply only when it denies a person’s access to education.  I personally feel that adding this new requirement will make it harder for victims to prove they were sexually assaulted.  This sort of governmental manipulation of regulations is potentially harmful to the rights of all victims and should not be allowable.

Eliminate Tenure – Blog Post #5

Having entered academia late in life, after 20 years in industry, I was/am appalled at the abuses I have seen of tenure.  I understand the idea of what tenure offers; increased academic freedom for research , the opportunity to challenge decisions, lifetime job security.  Unfortunately those benefits can sometimes lead to faculty members who do little/poor research,  feel free to treat students disrespectfully, and generally put forth less effort.  Many tenured faculty do great work and care deeply about their research and students.  However there are plenty of tenured faculty who use the benefits to their advantage (to the disadvantage of students, colleagues and universities).  I feel that the problem with tenure is the lack of accountability faculty members have to their department heads.  It appears it is either very difficult or just not worth the risk of addressing or dismissing ill performing tenured faculty and that must change in the universities of the future.

Downsides to Technology & Innovation – Blog Post #4

Last week in Albuquerque, New Mexico there was a global gathering of engineering educators at the VIII World Engineering Education Forum where the theme of the WEEF-GEDC 2018 conference is Peace Engineering: prosperity, sustainability, social equity, diversity, culture of quality, innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Marketplace Morning Report podcast with host David Brancaccio had a brief discussion about the conference on the 11/16/18 show.  Guest speaker Elsie Maio, founder of Soul Branding Institute, was a guest and discussed the conference with the host.  Part of their conversation explained that a possible catalyst for an engineering education conference titled, “Peace Engineering” is the impact Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having on ethics, social good and what unintended consequences the technology could cause.  Maio said AI was an, “impending onslaught,” causing “fear about dehumanization,” of our world.

Her concern was that the people writing the algorithms that make AI work could have their own biases that purposely or accidentally affect the outcome.

This begs the question, how are we addressing ethics, social good and unintended consequences of technology?

The podcast can be found here.  The section I’m referring to starts at about 5 minutes 12 seconds into the segment.

In U.S.-China trade war, some countries being told to pick a side

November 16, 2018


#metoo – Additional Blog Post #4

How a Department Took On the Next Frontier in the #MeToo Movement

By Lindsay Ellis and Sarah Brown, The Chronicle of Higher Education,  Nov 9, 2018

“It’s one thing to crack down on overt harassment and assault. Offhand remarks and uncomfortable moments are another story. They might not be illegal, but they have consequences. Over time, they weigh people down and make women question their place in the academy.”

“So why aren’t we talking about this? York remembers thinking.”

Julia York was a first year graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin when she was thinking about her department culture.  She is bold, and brave, and willing to tackle an issue some of us believe in but might not have the energy to address.   Gender harassment can be many different things but as this article so clearly highlights, it can be discriminatory even when it isn’t overt.

I was interested in this article because I feel like Julia does.  Never assaulted but exhuasted by 20+ years of uncomfortable moments and awkward remarks about being a female engineer in a male dominated field.  I felt certain that gender issues would be gone by the time my daughter went to college.  She’s 16 and while things have improved a bit, there is a long way to go before academe will be seen as equitable for men and women.

“Claus Wilke, chair of the integrative-biology department at Austin, told graduate students that he would help them try to change the department’s culture. Most of the department’s students are women, but about a quarter of the faculty is female.”  Julia is fortunate to have a department chair willing to listen and help.  Half of new faculty hired during Wilke’s appointment have been women.  Certainly his openness to listening to his female graduate students and efforts to increase the percentage of women faculty shows his seriousness about changing the department culture.  I wonder, once his appointment is up, will the positive forward momentum continue or could it stall under new, less supportive, departmental leadership?

Are there departments at other universities making even more progress than the one mentioned in this article?  If so, what are their recommendations?  Are there departments at VT that are this progressively taking action to improve their climate regarding gender discrimination?  Shouldn’t all departments at all IHE be working towards equity?  Will there ever be a time where this issue has been resolved?

“Who’s Teaching Teachers?” – Additional Blog Post 3

Because I am a Professor of Practice (and have 20 years industry experience instead of a PhD) I lack the experience of being a graduate student for a research professor.  I had naively assumed that part of all PhD programs was dedicated to teaching future academics how to teach.

When I was hired at VT I received zero guidance or mentoring on how to teach.  I literally have made it up as I’ve gone along.  By the end of my second year I learned that I wasn’t the only faculty member in my department that lacked formal instruction in the basics of teaching.  Almost none of my fellow faculty members had received training related to teaching.  They are great researchers and skilled at getting grants, certainly.  While some are great teachers, most are not.

Initially I did not know how to get help in “Teaching 101” but eventually learned on my own that VT has the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL, formerly CIDER) and an entire department in the COE dedicated to Engineering Education.  I took a CETL certificate course in “Principles of Effective Teaching” and enrolled in the Engineering Education graduate certificate program.  That first semester I learned volumes of information about teaching that have been invaluable.

Now in my fourth year of teaching I’ve developed a passion for the dilemma I feel we are facing; no one is teaching future college professors how to teach.  The February 11, 2018 issue of “The Chronicle of Higher Education” discusses this exact topic.  It cites statistics including that the American Association of University Professors estimates that over 70% of all faculty positions are non-tenure track, which usually means they are more focused on teaching instead of research.  Yet most PhD programs still do not include teaching training.

The article mentions some reasons why this might be happening but I’d like to address the problem head-on, in the COE, or at least in my department.  I see a two-pronged approach that could be implemented.  First, we need to include teaching instruction in our PhD program; this will benefit the students but also the institutions where they may end up as faculty.  Second, we need to make sure our faculty (regardless of where they got their PhD) have teaching instruction.  A way to do that is to require all current and future tenure-track faculty members to take the graduate certificate course in Engineering Education.  While this approach would not correct or improve the teaching of current tenured faculty it would certainly start the wave of change required to significantly improve the teaching skills of our faculty members.