Sheri Sheppard - Passion Statement

Anna and Zach are on their way to week three of ENGR14: Introduction to Solid Mechanics, along with 98 other students. Now sophomores, they are excited and a little scared about being in their first real engineering course. Anna has long wanted to be a civil engineer, and now she can start studying the material that will be key to her future work. Still, she wonders: "Will I actually be good at this type of work?" Zach is uncertain if he even wants to be an engineering major—and if so, what type?

They enter the classroom, join their group of 25 other students, and begin asking classmates, the professor and their group TA questions about a bridge project they've been working on. During the next 105 minutes, students will complete a concept inventory quiz, hear a mini-lecture on free-body diagrams, work with a partner to solve free-body diagram exercises at various stages of completion, complete a hands-on exercise with Jenga blocks involving calculations and experimentation and update their teaching team coach on two possible designs for the bridge project. So goes a typical day in ENGR14 where the professor no longer lectures for long periods and the TA team teaches alongside.

But such a day was not typical 28 years ago when my primary goal was for students to learn fundamental engineering concepts and to practice applying concepts in weekly, prescribed problem sets. This comfortable way to teach was how I had been taught, and it was neat, predictable and orderly. But it did little to motivate students beyond getting the right answers and certainly didn't get them "jazzed" by the material and the possibilities it opened.

BIG LESSON #1: Learning about Learning. A lecture/problem set course can only take engineering learning so far. A powerful motivator for me was tapping into existing educational expertise and, later, learning through my own educational research about how we attract students to engineering and retain them, how design and analytic thinking mature and how the efficacy of hands-on learning can be measured. Students need to see and work with concepts in different and coordinated ways because they learn in different ways and are motivated by different things. When exposed to various modes of learning, students roll up their sleeves to explore, try, measure and question. The energy in the room increases!

BIG LESSON #2: Learning about the Roles of Engineering Professionals. My time as senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called into question and expanded my notions of professionalism, vocation and calling. I was challenged by my foundation colleagues to think about roles of "engineer" that go beyond physics-based analysis. I realized that the sophomore level was the right moment for young men and women to begin "trying on" the complex, creative and ethically charged nature of engineering. I wanted students to learn in ways that challenged them to reflect upon questions such as: Is this work I enjoy? How does this type of work play out in various professional settings? Is this work where I can make a difference in the world?

The basic philosophy in ENGR14—putting skills and concepts into play in semi-authentic (if not authentic) situations and actively questioning how those skills might be a part of students' future studies and work—is also found in my mentoring efforts with undergraduate researchers and the next generation of teachers. This mentoring happens at Stanford and beyond, through my lab's research activities, teaching-related workshops and courses that I lead or co-lead, my writings and presentations and university and national committee work.