KEEN Rising Stars
By Dr. Edmond J. Dougherty
On my first day as an undergrad, the Dean addressed all the first-year engineers and said, “Look to your left; look to your right. One of you won’t be here by sophomore year.”
It was no idle threat. Both of my high school friends were gone by winter break.
In senior year, my required Electromagnetic Field Theory course was taught by a stern, gaunt character right out of a Dickens novel. He delighted in the fact that he was the only one who understood the hundreds of equations he scratched on the chalkboard. The class average was 17 out of 100.
During his final exam, the very last of my undergraduate career, I stared at the sheet of exam questions without a clue where to begin. I looked over at the brightest student in our class. He was red-faced, tears streaming down his face. I relaxed for the first time in four years and just did my best.
Fortunately, the pedagogical mindset of “only the strong survive” is long gone from most campuses. Today, engineering classrooms are more nurturing, experiential, and team-oriented. These techniques encourage students to better understand engineering technology and its practical uses in society.
A national leader in establishing improved engineering education is KEEN (Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network). KEEN partners with over 50 engineering colleges and universities as they work to ensure students develop an entrepreneurial mindset – a collection of mental habits that focus on opportunities, impact, and creating value. The EngineeringUnleashed.com platform, powered by KEEN, provides invaluable social networking and rich educational resources for thousands of engineering faculty.
Education starts with the educators. KEEN focuses its efforts on enhancing the capabilities of engineering faculty. As part of its effort to showcase excellence in education, the KEEN awards task force recently announced the 2020 KEEN “Rising Stars”: Dr. Blake Hylton of Ohio Northern University, Dr. Cheryl Bodnar of Rowan University, and the KEEN National Rising Star, Dr. Cristi Bell-Huff of Georgia Institute of Technology.
The Rising Stars are three junior faculty who “have gone above and beyond to equip undergraduate engineers to create personal, economic, and societal value through the entrepreneurial mindset.” They are dedicated to making entrepreneurially minded learning commonplace in engineering education so that one day, entrepreneurial engineering is simply engineering.
I had the privilege to interview these Rising Stars. In addition to seeing their commitment to entrepreneurially minded learning, and KEEN’s 3C’s (Curiosity, Connections, and Creating Value), I was delighted to hear their individual approaches to making the engineering classroom more welcoming, thought-provoking, and relevant, all while ensuring the technical content is more understandable to students.
KEEN’s Rising Stars show us a variety of ways to make great engineering education happen. This is a vastly different experience than what I had with the professors of my youth – and students are better off because of it.
Let me introduce you to this year’s Rising Stars: The Performer, the Gamer, and the Storyteller.
Dr. Blake Hylton as the Performer
Dr. Blake Hylton, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Ohio Northern University (ONU), constantly searches for opportunities to improve his classes, draw connections between courses and content, and develop new and better ways to unlock the value in that content for students. The entrepreneurial mindset really encapsulates his spirit of continuous improvement and persistence through failure.
In high school, Hylton became interested in technology as a result of a program established by Black and Veatch, a large engineering firm in Kansas City. An exciting, projects-based Research Science class in senior year of high school sealed the deal and convinced him that his future was in STEM.
Recognizing the impact the high school STEM experiences had on him, Hylton has been giving back.
Through an NSF grant, Hylton helps high schools “add engineering design content layered into core science classes. With the next generation science education standards, teachers need tools and training. We’re providing that, and at the same time, we are trying to get the kids excited about engineering and the mindset of the engineer.”
Hylton stands out in the crowd. He has a full head of auburn hair with sideburns that border on mutton chops. He also wears bow ties.
Hylton explains: “The bow ties started when I was teaching in grad school. I realized that I look about 5 to 10 years younger than I actually am. Even after I started teaching, many people thought I was an undergraduate.
“Wearing the bow ties was a way to differentiate myself from the students. I have a bunch of different ones. It started out as a bow-tie-Friday thing. Then it just extended into bow ties all the time. I have probably 60 bow ties now. There’s the circuit board bow tie. And then I have the pi symbol and pie slices. My Purdue Boilermaker one. The favorite of all is the Lego tie. I do have a 3D printed tie. That was a gift from a student.
“I’m naturally fairly introverted, but with teaching, I always employ a high degree of showmanship. It’s a little bit of an act. I put on my stage face, go out [in the classroom] and try to be the super exciting exuberant presenter.”
The bow ties and the theatrics keep the students engaged and in a good mood. They look forward to coming to class.
“I think that that’s especially [important] with freshmen. You have to go that extra step to get them engaged and bring them out of their shells. Being just a little bit over the top gets their attention.”
Hylton suggests that instructors become performers. “Find the thing that works for you and makes your problems authentic and relatable for students. The best thing we can do is help students learn without them even realizing it. I know I am succeeding. In a course evaluation this last semester, a student wrote ‘I got to the end of the semester and realized I’d learned a bunch without realizing I was learning.’ That’s the goal, right? Help them have fun while also learning.”
Dr. Cheryl Bodnar as the Gamer
The entrepreneurial mindset is an essential core element of Dr. Cheryl Bodnar’s personality and drives her daily. Despite not having any formal training in engineering education, she employed her curiosity about the field to identify gaps and opportunities, and build a successful research program.
Bodnar, Associate Professor at Row- an University, was born and raised in Canada. Her family clearly has creativity in their DNA. Her grand- father, John Fox, was awarded the Order of Canada for his work as Vice President of Engineering and Special Projects with Canadian Pacific Rail.
Bodnar brought her own creativity to the ice rink. “Growing up, I did a lot of figure skating, and later I joined an adult synchronized skating team.” Her fourteen-year-old daughter, Samantha, has picked up on the entrepreneurial spirit. She wrote and published a book, Dusty’s Garden, about her experiences dealing with anxiety, and started a business around it. In her role at Rowan University, Bodnar helps faculty create unique experiential and entrepreneurial learning opportunities using KEEN principles as a guide.
Much of her activity involves using games in her engineering class- rooms. “When I was in Toronto, I got a certificate in training and development (CTDP), and exposure to the idea of game-based learning to effectively train professionals in industry. In education, I also observed that in K-12 classrooms a lot of time is spent using games to teach children. I wondered, ‘Well, why aren’t we using games in higher education?’ It makes no sense that we use it all the way up till they get to University; then they are used in industry, but not in the University. That’s what ignited my passion to bring game-based learning into the higher education space.”
“Since then I’ve been involved in several grants to test different aspects of gaming. The most recent work was the process safety game called Contents Under Pressure that was funded through a National Science Foundation grant. We’re studying how it changes students’ process safety decision-making and judgment. I’ve worked with Filament Games, and a company called The Completely Surrounded. The way it works is, the game company would design a game and our group of educators would figure out how to implement them in the classroom.”
“I’ve had collaborators at North Carolina State, Rose-Hulman, and the University of Connecticut. Together, we’ve had really good results. I’ve also worked with Joe Tranquillo at Bucknell University, Victoria Matthew at VentureWell, and Leticia Britos Cavagnaro from Stanford.”
“We created Ideas At Play, a toolkit that includes a variety of games de- signed to enhance an entrepreneurial mindset. You can download the free toolkit and get access to all of these games. We associated them with different learning objectives. There are games, for example, that focus on communications skill development. My favorite game in the toolkit is called ROYGBIV.”
“I feel that KEEN has really changed my life. It’s introduced me to a wide variety of people, multiple different types of institutions, and I think what’s most beneficial about that is the diversity of thought. There are so many individuals whose different life paths have led them to where they are now, so they have differing perspectives on how to reach students or how to address problems, or how they see opportunities, or how to pitch curriculum.”
Dr. Cristi Bell-Huff as the Storyteller
The top KEEN National Rising Star award winner is Dr. Cristi Bell-Huff, a Lecturer and Director of Faculty and Student Training at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Bell-Huff has consistently demonstrated an entrepreneurial mindset, such as connecting design practices to engineering for her students to benefit local community members, and implementing vertically-integrated, story-driven entrepreneurially-minded learning curriculum.
“My dad had a big impact on my life,” Bell-Huff says. “He was an attorney at the Securities and Exchange Commission. He liked to wear cowboy boots, got his pilot’s license just for fun, and drove a red Karmann Ghia. He was so busy but would always take the time to talk with me. I treasure those times. I internalized these experiences and it’s helped me a lot throughout my career, particularly being a woman in engineering. His unique way of thinking helped me decide I’m not going to change to fit a mold. I’ll succeed in this field the way I am, because of who I am.”
Bell-Huff was awarded an NSF grant for research involving the impact of story-driven learning and other pedagogies on the development of empathy in engineering students. “Fostering empathy as an engineering skill is important for maintaining the technical excellence and service to society that should characterize engineers. It’s where the entrepreneurial mindset connects: We need to be able to understand the user’s story and the perspective of the people we’re designing for.”
“To help a person create value for society, empathy is foundational.”
By listening to real-life stories, students learn how people deal with stressful situations. In Bell-Huff’s 2018 KEEN Talk, we meet “Robert,” a person with mental and physical disabilities who works assembling spray bottles. He is paid by the bottle, but he earns much less than his co-workers because he is only able to use his left hand.
Bell-Huff’s students from her sophomore design class visited Robert’s workplace to interview him and observe the assembly process. The students learned that in addition to his slower pace, the repetition was painful.
After testing prototypes, the students soon delivered a simple, low cost but effective system that they knew would work for Robert: a gravity fed bottle dispenser and a motorized bottle grip that helped twist on the spray mechanism.
Robert was happy. His productivity and pay increased dramatically, and his work-related pain was eliminated. The students learned many lessons they will employ throughout their careers.
Understanding that all humans are fragile and have struggles helps students gain self-confidence and dispel feelings of impostor syndrome that may arise as they start their careers in a competitive world.
“I have loved seeing more of a focus on effective teaching. All of a sudden people are thinking about ‘How do I teach well?’ and ‘How do I think about the perspective of the students?’ And that’s been a positive. It’s been invigorating to see people rise to the challenge of creating a good experience for the students, despite everything.”