Sheri Sheppard - Acceptance Speech

2014 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Sheri Sheppard
Professor of mechanical engineering
Stanford University

Thank you, Samantha, for the wonderful introduction. And thank you to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for sponsoring this award and for making this day possible. I'm humbled by this award and profoundly appreciative of being recognized in this way.

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I am not a great teacher, and sometimes I have even been a bad teacher.

Let me take you back in time—I was in high school when I received my first paid teaching position. For me then, music, and in particular the violin, was my world. I loved that notations on paper could become auditory poetry. I loved the hard work to make that happen, and I loved the showmanship. I believed that everyone, even fourth-grader Becky, should love music as much as I did, and be willing to dedicate themselves to long hours (if not a few minutes) of practice each day. I don't exactly remember what I said to Becky during one of her lessons that caused her eyes to well with tears and for her to cry. Instead of feeling bad for Becky, I do remember that I was feeling totally frustrated! I was frustrated with her because her playing was worse that week than the week before! Why didn't she love the violin as much as I did? I was a bad teacher.

Let's fast forward to when I was a graduate student, studying engineering. I was just about to complete my engineering master's degree—taking courses in fatigue and fracture, reliability, statistics and organizational behavior. And my mentor, Professor George Kurajian, suggested I try my hand at teaching at Lawrence Institute of Technology, just outside of Detroit. Lawrence offered evening classes for non-traditional students pursuing their bachelor's degrees in the evenings and on the weekends. I had not really thought much about teaching (especially after my ill-fated high school experience!); but I admired George as an educator and mentor, and his asking me to consider teaching had a strength and weight behind it.

That I said yes was a game-changer. This time, my teaching experience was totally different; I really liked the topic—Principles of Material Science. I wanted my students to understand the concepts that I loved and saw the power of. I strongly believed that their taking ownership of the ideas was important to their future careers. While this teaching was probably not up to "good," it was definitely better than my high school violin teaching, primarily because I was starting to see that teaching was not about me, but was about my students. I was not a great teacher, but I was improving.

OK, I have a 2nd confession to make. Being an engineer has not always been a natural act for me. I was not one of those kids who repaired her bicycle or built things with an erector set. Mostly I was into my friends, and then into music. During elementary school, I was not a dedicated student; I earned mostly B's and an occasional C or A. I did have a natural asset, however, in a loving and talented mother, who was also a fifth-grade teacher. She spent a whole summer with me between third- and fourth-grade teaching me how to read. My mother was an amazing teacher.

In high school, academics started getting interesting with physics, mathematics and debating my classmates. That was challenging and fun. But going into something science or engineering-related in college did not enter into my thinking until well into my senior year. I enjoyed debating, so law seemed like a natural extension.

Alright one more confession—by then, the idea of studying law was mainly because my father said that he would fund law school if I majored in engineering. My dad had a way of suggesting things, not in a pushy way, but in a way that made you think about it.

Let me just say a few words about my dad. He was an engineer. All through my growing up, I admired his thinking—how he was able to work with his hands and head to solve problems. So the idea of majoring in something that helped me think, if not act, like my dad didn't seem like a bad thing. In fact, it would allow me to study more math and science, subjects that had comfortable order to them.

The fact is, and I will just have to say, I never made it to law school because I fell in love with engineering along the way. I fell in love with the problem solving. I fell in love with the analytic reasoning, the use of science, the creativity of design, and I especially fell in love with the messiness of manufacturing. This love affair didn't happen overnight, but with lots of problem-sets and long (and often frustrating) hours in labs, with conversations and encouragement from mentors and classmates, internship experiences and engineering job assignments that stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally. Engineering clicking for me was an "emergent" process.

So why did I share these confessional stories?

One reason is because I believe these experiences are part of making me a more empathetic educator and colleague. They have inspired me to design class assignments and interactions for my students that let them "try engineering on" as part of pushing them to see that engineering is not just equations and science, but is a vital, professional role in society. These experiences have inspired me to realize that teaching, like engineering, is not a natural act, and that I can play a role in helping new teachers learn to become better teachers.

Another reason I shared these confessions is that they illustrate that there have been many people along the way that have helped me learn to become an engineering educator... from fourth-grade Becky to mentors in industry, college and graduate school, and my engineer dad and teacher mom.

I am also grateful to my incredible teacher husband Dr. Ed Carryer, my high school teacher daughter Portia Carryer, my always loving sister, many supportive colleagues at Stanford and many others (too many to name). Thank you for not giving up on me, and for believing in what I might become and what I might be able to do.