MLFTC faculty members play core roles in engineering research centers

By

Erik Ketcherside

The National Science Foundation established its engineering research center initiative in 1984 to unite academic and industrial researchers in transforming American engineering and preparing tomorrow’s engineers. Based on university campuses, ERCs are initially funded by the foundation with up to $5 million per year, but each is expected to become self-sustaining within a decade. The program is highly competitive. In 2017, only three centers were awarded out of more than 100 proposals, and only 19 ERCs are currently supported across the U.S.

Two of those centers are headquartered at ASU: QESST, the Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies; and the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics, or CBBG. ASU is also a partner in FREEDM — the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management systems center at North Carolina State University — and Rice University’s NEWT — Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment systems center.

ASU’s centers have a strong commitment to nurturing potential engineers through research experiences for undergraduates, and partnerships with local middle and high schools to help them improve STEM teacher efficacy and student achievement. Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College faculty members, two current and one affiliated, have crucial roles in those efforts.

Engineering education

Associate Professor Michelle Jordan is education director for QESST, and Professor Wilhelmina Savenye is executive director of education for CBBG. Jean Larson, an assistant research professor in ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, was their MLFTC faculty colleague before becoming full-time education director at CBBG. Larson and Savenye both earned PhDs in educational technology from MLFTC.

Their roles as education directors are complex, as each center comprises several partner institutions. For CBBG, four universities are involved in the center. Savenye says she and Larson lead the four in outreach efforts to K–12 students and teachers, as well as to university researchers, and develop curricula for undergraduate and graduate students. They also provide professional development for engineers, create educational partnerships, and work with diversity staff to ensure inclusion in the center’s programs.

“What is so exciting,” Savenye says, “is that we are developing the education programs for this new center that is leading a new field: biogeotechnical engineering” — a convergence of transformative trends in engineering: biologically-based design and sustainability.

QESST is on the leading edge of photovoltaic technology, and Jordan says a decade of acceleration in PV research and development allows her to pursue her research interest in collaborative group learning.

“I'm particularly interested in how peers manage uncertainty and navigate communication challenges when working together on open-ended, creative projects,” Jordan says. “One great place to study these issues is in engineering education. We are cultivating a QESST PV engineering community in which everyone is a learner and everyone is a creative contributor to someone else’s learning and to PV engineering.”

Like CBBG, QESST has a foundational commitment to inclusion. Jordan says, “Part of what excites me about working for QESST is building long-lasting relationships between the university and the local community, creating relational agency across organizations that serve Phoenix youth, especially youth from populations underrepresented in engineering.”

Creating collaborations

Larson came to CBBG after many years teaching and developing curriculum in multiple learning environments. She taught technology integration to undergraduate and graduate students at ASU, was a K–12 instructor locally and abroad, and has led workshops in business and industry. Working with her ERC, she says, “There seems to be an infinite number of opportunities to collaborate with faculty and students, as well as offices, colleges and centers across the university, at our partner universities and even nationwide. I really enjoy connecting with others who are interested in improving engineering education and building a stronger pathway to engineering from K–12 classrooms.”

Savenye’s background is equally varied. She has been a professor of educational technologies and learning design for more than two decades, and has served as an instructional designer and evaluator on many projects. “Especially in STEM,” she says, “but also in museums, in informal learning and in business.” Serious business, in at least one case: maintenance training for the Army's M1 Abrams tank.

“I especially enjoy doing faculty development,” Savenye says, “helping faculty and students learn to teach better.” That interest made joining CBBG a unique opportunity, she says. “I was eager to be part of what was essentially a startup, with Jean, leading the development of the vision and educational strategies and projects for our center.”

Transdisciplinary advantages

The benefits of having MLFTC faculty members in leadership roles at the centers don’t flow only one way. Jordan, Savenye and Larson all say their innovations at the ERCs become part of their work for the teachers college. Jordan points to SCN400–Sustainability Science for Teachers, a course coordinated by Assistant Professor Eileen Merritt.

Jordan says, “We worked with Eileen to incorporate a solar energy engineering design activity into this premiere course, which they now use with all students in the elementary education program. Response from instructors and preservice teachers has been enthusiastic. Instructors reported that the activity increased students’ confidence about teaching engineering in the classroom, as well as their own personal interest in engineering.” Jordan invites practicing and preservice teachers to QESST’s free teacher professional development workshop, “Solar 101,” on Feb. 2.

QESST also has three MLFTC doctoral candidates from the Learning, Literacies and Technologies program working at the center — Mathew Evans, Wendy Wakefield and Nicole Bowers — and regularly hosts undergraduate interns from the teachers college’s University Service-Learning course. Another LLT graduate, Kristin Elwood, is now a postdoctoral research fellow at CBBG, as well as at ASU’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology.

Learn more about the MLFTC PhD in Learning, Literacies and Technologies

In fact, all three say their dual roles offer frequent opportunities for exchange. Larson says, “I look forward to any chance for collaboration that involves education and engineering, and MLFTC offers unlimited opportunities to work with experts from both fields. Next spring, 18 Fulbright fellows from around the world, working with [MLFTC Associate Professor] Leanna Archambault to learn about effective technology use in the classroom, will explore ASU’s innovation and interdisciplinary projects when they visit CBBG.”

Savenye and Jordan also find common ground between their centers and their college. Savenye points to MLFTC’s drive to discover. “What has always excited me here is our spirit of innovation,” she says, “coupled with our true student-centered approach to all learning.”

Jordan agrees that, despite their differing disciplines, QESST and MLFTC have much in common. “Our college takes an approach to teacher preparation that mirrors the approach promoted by QESST,” she says. “Everyone is a learner, everyone is a contributor. Even the most inexperienced teacher is doing the work. We enter at different levels, but we all contribute to the community. Working together, we all influence what the community can accomplish now and in the future.”