Cindy Finelli: Community building and envisioning the future of engineering education research

Finelli takes on the future of educating engineers

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Cindy Finelli started her career as an engineering faculty at Kettering University, where she created the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. She joined the University of Michigan in 2003 to establish and direct the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Engineering. Over the past decade, she has built a strong community for engineering education research at the University of Michigan, and she has spread the mission of engineering education research to a broader, international audience through her scholarly work and professional service. In 2015, University of Michigan launched a unique initiative to hire tenured/tenure-track faculty whose primary area of scholarship is engineering education research and whose appointment is in a traditional engineering department. As a tenured electrical and computer engineering faculty member, Cindy is the first one of those faculty.The profile below was authored by Xiaofeng Tang, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, based on an interview with Dr. Finelli in 2014.

From engineering faculty in a teaching school to community builder for engineering education research

My career so far has been most closely related to two institutions: Kettering University and the University of Michigan. I started my career as engineering faculty at Kettering (a small, private teaching school), teaching and doing research in the traditional discipline of electrical engineering. Very soon, I realized my efforts in both realms needed change. As a teaching school, Kettering could not provide me with the infrastructure I needed to support my research initiatives in electrical engineering. At the same time, I recognized the need as a new teacher for guidance in order to be an effective educator for my engineering students.

The latter need was met by attending an effective teaching workshop organized by the National Effective Teaching Institute (NETI), an experience that not only enhanced my teaching capacity, but also kindled my interest in exploring more effective ways of teaching and learning in engineering. After I came back from the workshop, I started to collaborate with colleagues at Kettering and elsewhere to conduct research on a variety of topics related to engineering education, such as assessing the effectiveness of engineering curricula and identifying factors that affect engineering students’ ethical choices. Attempting to provide more support to my colleagues, who were eager to learn about effective teaching and learning, I started the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kettering.

My passion for building a community to support engineering faculty’s effective teaching was continued when I moved to the University of Michigan, where I first took a position as a coordinator between the university’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) and the College of Engineering. My mission as a liaison between these two units was to bridge the educational research and support programs developed at the Center with the practice of teaching engineering in the College. I created CRLT-Engin, a CRLT division within the engineering college and oversaw its expansion over the years, engaging more engineering faculty and graduate students into a community aiming at researching and improving engineering education.

Becoming an engineering education researcher: Support and challenges

In the course of becoming an engineering education researcher, I have been fortunate to receive significant support from a community of engineering education research pioneers. The NETI workshop and its organizers, like Richard Felder, warmly welcomed me into the field of engineering education research. Another project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Rigorous Research in Engineering Education, helped me with strengthening the credibility and legitimacy of my work in educational research.

However, similar to many engineering education researchers, I have also encountered some major challenges in my transition from a traditional engineering faculty to an engineering education researcher. My challenges lay mainly in two areas: collegial and methodological. At Kettering, I ran into resistance from some colleagues who knew little about engineering education research and questioned its value. In spite of the resistance, I persisted with my research, made efforts to improve its rigor, and published in reputable journals. These efforts demonstrated the value of engineering education research to my colleagues. As I had no formal training in educational research and little teaching experience in graduate school, my unfamiliarity with the research methods in engineering education became another major challenge. In the process of studying engineering education, I taught myself the frameworks and research methods in this field by reading numerous journal articles and textbooks, attending conferences and workshops, and learning from students and colleagues with whom I was collaborating.

Spreading the mission and building communities for engineering education research

I am glad to see that some of my scholarly work—for example, my research on engineering students’ ethical choices—has resulted in actionable findings that help engineering faculty in designing curricula and improving pedagogy. Yet I am more excited about the role I played in spreading the mission of engineering education research to a broad audience and building communities for engineering education researchers at the University of Michigan and elsewhere.

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had is to witness my colleagues at the University of Michigan who had had little knowledge of engineering education research becoming active participants in this field. I also promoted engineering education research beyond the institution I work for via professional networks. For example, I served as the chair for the Educational Research and Methods Division (ERM) at ASEE, and I developed a taxonomy for the field of engineering education research that has been adopted by many leading journals in the field. I often receive emails and phone calls from colleagues across the country or across the world who are interested in learning more about engineering education research.

Through my appointment at the University of Michigan and my service in professional societies, I also helped build and strengthen communities for scholars who are interested in effective teaching and learning in engineering. At the University of Michigan, we offer grants, create programs, and provide support in other formats to colleagues in order to foster their capacity in engineering education research. We have also built a cohort of faculty to think about effective teaching practices and to help each other via the creation of a faculty learning community at University of Michigan. With our help, more and more colleagues are getting NSF grants for engineering education research.

Envisioning the future for engineering education research

My personal experience to some extent reflects the accomplishments and success achieved by the field of engineering education research over the past few decades. Right now, it seems an appropriate moment to carefully envision the future for our field. We are seeing an increasingly diverse ecology for engineering education research. Some institutions, such as Virginia Tech and Purdue, have created departments or schools of engineering education, where they train graduate students and offer doctoral degrees in this field. Here at Michigan, we are developing a college-wide graduate program that is a variation on that model. Our program will leverage the engineering education research faculty who are integrated into the traditional engineering departments and will connect students directly with disciplines. Elsewhere, faculty and graduate students are pursuing engineering education research in a more individualist style. Finding ways to connect these different actors in the field and to strengthen the partnership across institutions poses great challenges as well as opportunities.

The future of engineering education research depends a lot on our junior faculty and graduate students, many of whom are still struggling to acquire recognition and support from their institutions, colleagues, and advisors for their work in educational research. It is worth thinking about how we can better connect them and to provide them with mentorship and colleagueship across the nation, through formal and informal networking opportunities.

Originally posted by Engineering Education Pioneers, May 26, 2016