New Ph.D. program will improve engineering education for all learners

This fall, the College of Engineering launched a Ph.D. in engineering education. The cross-disciplinary program will prepare graduates for research, academic and other demanding careers in engineering education from pre-kindergarten classrooms to workforce development.

For College of Engineering Dean Manos Maragakis, the recent approval of the program by the Nevada System of Higher Education is the culmination of a vision many years in the making.

“Six years ago, working with the College of Education, we began to develop ideas around the question of how do we best teach so that students can learn and retain engineering information, even at the earliest ages,” Maragakis said. “We decided to establish the engineering education program. With Adam Kirn and, later, Kelly Cross, we began laying the foundation for this important program, and we are very excited to see it is now moving to the next level by establishing a doctoral program.”

“Reimagining what engineering is”: fostering diversity, equity and inclusion

Associate Professor Adam Kirn and Assistant Professor Kelly Cross will be the lead faculty in the program, which welcomed seven students this fall. Kirn joined the University in 2014 and specializes in student motivation and learning, while Cross joined the College in 2019 and focuses her research on issues of diversity in STEM and inclusive teaching practices.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this doctoral program is the quality of the faculty we have leading it,” Associate Dean Indira Chatterjee said. “Professor Cross and Professor Kirn have an incredible reputation in the engineering education community for their research and leadership, and with them behind this initiative, the program will thrive.”

For the program to excel, both Kirn and Cross believe, diversity, inclusion and equity practices and philosophies must be centered.

“The Ph.D. in engineering education is built around diversity, inclusion and equity,” Kirn, who will serve as program director, explained. “The question we are trying to answer is, ‘How do we incorporate a broad range of students in the process of learning engineering skills and principles?’ How we answer that question in our research and labs will translate to practices in classrooms throughout our state and beyond.”

Cross added, “Diversity, equity and inclusion are foundational components of the program. Our students will learn how to incorporate DEI concepts into all their professional activities including teaching, research and service. Importantly, our students will also learn to evaluate DEI goals and activities.”

By focusing on inclusive teaching and research practices, Cross believes the program will help recruit students from varied backgrounds: “The emphasis of DEI should also attract more diverse students with a range of perspectives that allow the college to demonstrate its commitment to improving DEI throughout the college.”

As the University becomes increasingly diverse, with a student body of nearly 40 percent students of color and 40 percent first-generation students, Cross and Kirn believe the curriculum in the engineering education program can play an important role in ensuring student success.

“The engineering education field is reimagining what engineering is, who has access to the field and the future role of the field in innovation,” Cross said. “The skills required to be an effective engineer has changed as the society in which we seek to improve the knowledge base of our student population has evolved.”

The philosophical underpinning of the program is the idea that learning content is not the same thing as learning how to convey that content to someone else. Knowing how to build a trebuchet is not the same thing as helping someone understand the core principles of the machine. The first may be seen as a technical question, while the latter is, at its heart, social and personal.

“When we consider how to teach, we must consider the person we are trying to teach… Teaching is not about my ability to explain technical content, but it is about my ability to get my students or audience to understand, given their current knowledge and prior experience.”

“Technical content or fundamental principles of engineering are abstract and generally considered as universal truth. So, the Laws of Thermodynamics are the same regardless of the context. When we consider how to teach, we must consider the person we are trying to teach,” Cross said. “So, if I explain the Laws of Thermo to you in a language or with words you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean the Law is untrue. It means I have not figured out how to communicate the Laws in a way in which you can understand. Teaching is not about my ability to explain technical content, but it is about my ability to get my students or audience to understand, given their current knowledge and prior experience.”

As the field looks beyond the technical to the interactions of the people in the classroom or laboratory, the program will break down some of the walls that have traditionally separated other professions from engineering.

“Engineering education approaches teaching in a holistic way to create an environment where students can learn to be the engineers they want to be.”

“Because the program allows us to critically reflect on the ways we teach engineering, it also provides an opportunity to pull on best practices in educational psychology, for instance, and social work,” Kirn said. “Engineering education approaches teaching in a holistic way to create an environment where students can learn to be the engineers they want to be.”

Engineering Education Laboratory in the new William N. Pennington Engineering Building

As the engineering education program came online this fall, the College of Engineering also moved into the new William N. Pennington Engineering Building. Designed to support all five departments of the College, the 100,000-square-foot facility includes a lab space to support the new program.

“The engineering education laboratory will allow us to evaluate innovations in teaching practices,” Kirn said. “It will be an incubation space to test new ideas, to see if they work in practice. Ultimately, we are trying to answer the question that educators have about real-world integration of engineering principles into the curriculum: ‘What do I do in my classroom?’”

With its potential for classroom application, the engineering education program is part of the College’s broad-ranging approach to provide support from the first days of a student’s education. In the hopes of inspiring budding engineers, College of Engineering summer camps introduce elementary and junior high students to engineering principles, while the MAKE Nevada program provides mentorship to students from Title I high schools, and the Mobile Engineering Education Lab (ME2L) brings grade-appropriate, interactive lessons to students throughout the state. The confluence of the opening of the building and the new Ph.D. program enhances the College’s ability to support students from kindergarten to career.

“With the William N. Pennington Engineering Building, we have a state-of-the-art facility,” Dean Manos Maragakis said. “I am very excited that the new engineering education program will have its own dedicated lab. I am confident that this, combined with the talent of our faculty and students, will propel this program to new heights and will offer our students new possibilities.”

Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Carman added, “Between the new building and the new engineering-education program, we are well positioned to ensure that all students have the opportunity to realize their potential in the engineering profession. The new program is vital to the overall future of the community we serve. I’m also convinced that the engineering-education program directly and positively impact the quality of our instruction at the University of Nevada, Reno. We are proud to offer it, and I am grateful for the efforts of Dean Maragakis and Professors Kirn and Cross.”

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