STEM Spotlight with Jo Walther

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A Lilly Teaching Fellow and assistant professor, Dr. Jo Walther is passionate about innovation in engineering education. While at UGA, Dr. Walther has developed unique studio courses that challenge students to think creatively. A NSF Career Grant recipient and STEM mini grant recipient, Walther hopes to see an increase in engineering students in the future.

What department are you a professor for? What classes do you teach?

I am part of the faculty of engineering. I've been here for three and a half years now in the role of assistant professor.  I'm teaching environmental engineering and have been involved in developing and implementing studio courses that are somewhat different than what normal engineering courses are.

What part of your job do you enjoy most?

I enjoy interacting with students. It's rewarding to see students develop their understanding in a subject area.

You've been working on improving engineering education. Can you tell us what innovations you've put into place to achieve better education?

The studio courses are a big part of my work to improve engineering education. Engineering education has traditionally focused on the propositional knowledge of the math and sciences as it contributes to engineering fundamentals. Aspects of this knowledge will always be important, but the context of engineering work is changing with emerging aspects like globalization, or social and environmental concerns in the context of sustainable design in areas like  water and energy. Engineering in the future needs to have broader focus. This is about changing education so students will be technically competent and also broadly educated so that they can assume the expanding responsibilities of the profession.

Through initiatives like the Synthesis and Design Studios, we hope to enable students to understand technology as embedded into a societal context. As ways to prepare students for this broader role as responsible professionals, we incorporate team dynamics and team building in our studio courses and foster students’ abilities to observe and understand a system and adequately frame a problem before immediately proposing a solution.

Do the students choose their own projects?

We provide the topic area as a broad socio-technical challenge in a local Athens context and the students frame their own project within this context. They go out into the community to observe situations and consult with stakeholders to establish the social, cultural, economic and ecological aspects of the project but will also draw on their engineering background to establish technical facts and figures for the assignment. As creative deliverables they, for example,  write a magazine article to represent all facets of their understanding of the socio-technical context and do a small, online video to serve as an opinion piece. Based on this project to understand the problem they then work on a grant proposal to suggest, for example, sustainability initiatives for the local Athens context.

In the past, you worked on the “Reflection as a Way of Integrating Student Learning Across Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” mini-grant. What was it about?

The idea came out of my dissertation research, where focus groups were used to collect data from students. Traditionally, there are no specific ways to initiate the reflective process - reflection is often done on a blank piece of paper. Out of my experience came an idea to use a specific process in a focus group format to identify critical learning moments and what they mean. We starte the process by eliciting accounts of significant learning moments through emotional responses that are associated with them. Over a number of semesters, we came up with trigger statements and questions that enable students to recall and identify significant learning experiences. Once students identify these moments of confusion, transition or overcoming, we would talk about them in a structured way for the student to make sense of how these experiences contributed to their overall learning and professional formation. With this grant, we analyzed student data about the learning moments to systematically identify categories of suitable triggers.

You did a “Stop Motion Animation” mini-grant in 2011 with Nadia Kellam. How did it impact learning for students?

There are a lot of abstract definitions about sustainability that are largely disconnected from students' experience. With the grant, we got student teams to collectively create their view and understanding of sustainability as a team. We gave them modeling clay and cameras and they made a stop motion animation that presented their collective, intuitive sense of sustainability. The videos went beyond what students could have verbally articulated. The videos were not only about avoiding waste or pollution; they represented aspects of very advanced understanding of sustainability that are, for example, articulated in conceptions of net positive design instead of avoiding just negative impacts. It was the different form of expression and the affordances of the medium that allowed students to access this part of their understanding of sustainability.

You were awarded the NSF Career Grant. What is this project? How does this connect to your research?

Engineering education is a research discipline that has emerged quite recently from a long interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning in engineering. It has transformed into a research discipline in its own right. The structures of this discipline are still forming. More recently, the field is increasingly been an adopting qualitative methods, which I’m naturally drawn to and predominantly use in my work. This has been an interesting journey from my background in mechanical engineering to a dissertation in engineering education research.

As a community, we use a wide range of methods. We increasingly use qualitative research methods. As we are solidifying a consensus acceptable research methods, we also need to develop ways to determine what is “good” or high quality research across these diverse methodological approaches. The problem with not articulating these conceptions of research quality is that it takes away from the credibility and potential impact of qualitative methods. If we develop this as a community – and this project is intended to be a starting point for a larger conversation -  we'll be able to bring our research to a larger audience and affect positive change in engineering education.

As one example, if you're looking at diversity, an average determined through a survey won’t tell you much about the “outliers” , that is the non-traditional students in the field. But knowing about the needs, challenges and aspirations of those groups is really important for improving our education system and through this making it more inclusive . We need more in-depth methods to capture what happens to these students and what they experience. Qualitative methods are suited to this as they are inherently sensitive to and can give a voice to the subtleties and nuances of students’ lived experiences.

How did you become interested in the shortage of engineering students? How do you think that the number of students will change in the future?

There is certainly discussion about the need for more engineering students, but I believe that we need different kinds of engineers and we need engineers to think differently. This is how the field of engineering education came about from the realization that there is need for radical change in the way we prepare engineers. At UGA, we’re lucky to have a range of new programs so that we can develop implement these new approaches to educating the next generation of engineers.

What is Total Quality Management Systems? How are you using this in your NSF grant?

It’s a term used in the context of manufacturing engineering. In the project I use it as a metaphor, a bridging paradigm if you will, to convey to an engineering audience that we should view research quality as a process of continuous improvement in all stages of the project. Some see the TQM method as a set of prescriptive procedures for the manufacturing process. But, philosophically, it is a different way at looking at quality. It’s a way of shifting the focus from assessing products to improving and documenting the process. The quality of the product is checked every step of the way, rather than being passed on through the line.  It is a somewhat familiar way of looking at quality for an engineering audience and can at the same time be a great metaphor to explore research quality in interpretive engineering education studies.

I hope that through the project, the metaphor or paradigm of quality management can help create a common language for engineers to have a conversation about their diverse conceptions and practices around research quality in their work. This sustained dialogue and the capacity building in the community that results from it can hopefully foster the adoption and broader acceptance of qualitative methods. Then we can really find answers to some of the bigger problems, like the role of minorities and, more broadly, how to support individuals with more diverse personality types who enter the field of engineering.

The new College of Engineering at UGA was announced. How will that affect engineering education?

The fact that UGA has engineering education research is very forward thinking and the fact that we as engineering education research faculty are integrated into and teach in the engineering college is unique in the country. A lot of other universities are now forming separate schools of engineering education which could lead to a separation of educational research and educational practice. At UGA we have the opportunity to do fundamental educational research in an engineering setting and at the same time this research does not only inform our own practice but also impacts curricular structures and educational practices in all our engineering programs. In completing the transition to the new college I would hope that we can further develop the visionary nature of our programs and as engineering education researchers make a unique contribution to development of novel and innovative engineering education that prepares our students to be competent and responsible professionals for the 21st century.

To learn more about Dr. Walther, visit UGA's College of Engineering website.

Interview compiled by Molly Berg

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Dr. Jo Walther