When Katherine Kuchenbecker, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, momentarily lost her way in the maze of setting up a graduate research project, she knocked on the office door of Sheri Sheppard: a professor she knew could guide her. “I had done some of my master’s,” Kuchenbecker says. “I loved the teaching, but I didn’t know how to start doing research. I didn’t know what it meant to do research. Dr. Sheppard sat me down and said, ‘Here’s how a research group works.’” It’s the kind of detail that isn’t lost on other students, especially women. “Almost every woman I know has a Sheri story,” Kuchenbecker says.
Sheppard, a full professor and member of Stanford’s Design Group, is known for her ability to understand the student perspective, perhaps because she still hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be one. One of her more pivotal experiences was in 1975 when she took her first engineering class at the University of Wisconsin. The professor confounded her with terms she had never heard before, and she assumed the other students, all men, knew just what torsion and shear stress meant. It wasn’t until another student raised his hand and confessed his confusion that she realized, “Oh, we’re supposed to ask questions.”
From that day on, Sheppard has been doing just that, searching in part for answers that don’t just come from hard-wired technology. In fact, many of her most pointed questions concern teaching and how students learn. Intellectually, Sheppard says she had been intrigued by what makes students’ eyes light up even before she became Stanford’s first—and only until 2002—female mechanical engineering professor 20 years ago. At Stanford, she took an iconoclastic route early on as a researcher, becoming a principal investigator for a seven-institution, multimillion-dollar National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to systematically study, design and assess new approaches to engineering education.
Because she was a new faculty member and still untenured, her colleagues advised her to focus on more traditional methods of research, such as her work on spot welding and fatigue. But Sheppard, whose past hobbies have included amateur race-car driving and scuba diving, accepted the principal investigator role, taking measures to avoid getting too immersed in the administration of the grant and using it instead to carve out an intellectual domain. Her main contribution was to systematically establish a pedagogical method called mechanical dissection, which teaches students the context in which designs are created by having them take apart familiar objects such as bikes or fishing reels and put them back together. “Sheri made tacit knowledge within one design community explicit in a way that has promoted its use in many university courses,” including courses at Yale and MIT, says Larry Leifer, a colleague at Stanford.
Sheppard first appreciated the interplay between people and machines when, in college, she interned as a forewoman on the assembly line of a General Motors (GM) plant. Before college, her sights had been set on becoming a professional musician, but visits to music conservatories made her realize she didn’t want to live her life in a practice room. She turned to engineering, thinking it might be useful as a pathway to law school. But once she got a taste of the plant assembly floor and witnessed the details behind creating such products as catalytic converters, the verdict changed, and she dropped her legal plans for a career in engineering. She was awarded a job at the prestigious Chrysler Institute, where she learned the ropes at the Chrysler Corp. and simultaneously attended the University of Michigan. From there, she took a job with a consulting firm and did structural analysis for companies such as GM. In the evenings, she started teaching classes at the Lawrence Institute of Technology and realized almost immediately that her future was not with the corporate world. “I would come home on the ceiling in terms of the adrenaline rush,” she says. “It was a challenge to make engineering principles real to a classroom of students.”
Learning About Learning
Sheppard has never lost sight of that challenge, and analyzing engineering education has remained a major focus of her research at Stanford. For co-authoring the paper “Relationships Between Engineering Student and Faculty Demographics and Stakeholders Working to Affect Change,” Sheppard won a 2005 ASEE award for best paper published in the Journal of Engineering Education. Currently, Sheppard is co-authoring a book called “Educating Engineers: Theory, Practice and Imagination.” It is one in a series of books resulting from a study funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to explore professional education. Sheppard was hired in 2001 to be the lead scholar for the engineering component. “In some ways our methods are principally social-science based,” says Sheppard, who is the only engineer on a team that includes historians, anthropologists, psychologists and lawyers. “For me intellectually, it’s been incredible to do qualitative research, to debate and discuss higher education.”
The Carnegie study will give universities a framework to ask questions about and make changes to their engineering programs. “Implicit in the questions is an agenda,” Sheppard says. “The intent is about the quality of education now but also how do we clean house so we can make room for new technologies. These are questions that every program has to ask itself.” The study found that students are also taking five to six years on average to complete their coursework, and senior courses have four or five prerequisites. “It leaves little breathing room for students. They have to get on the train and stay on it,” Sheppard says. “How much of this interconnectivity is necessary? Do we need the whole course or course elements?” The study also found that schools emphasize learning a body of knowledge over problem solving and undervalue the lab component in terms of credit hours.
Sheppard is considered a leader in design education, but when she went up for tenure in 1992, the pivotal question was whether her educational research could be considered a legitimate piece of scholarly work, especially because engineers traditionally have dealt only with the physical sciences, not the social or learning sciences. “She took a leadership role in this work,” says Mary Taylor Huber, a Carnegie senior scholar whose book, “Balancing Acts: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Academic Careers,” looks at the effect of pedagogical scholarship on tenure. “When you have a developing area of knowledge, it’s very important to have people who will put themselves out there, take these risks and participate fully in these forums.”
Engineering education research was almost unheard of 10 years ago, says Richard Felder, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University. “The default assumption is that if you have a Ph.D., you automatically know how to teach. High attrition rates [especially among minorities] attest to the fact that it’s not just automatic.” Cognitive and empirical evidence is necessary to support teaching methods and curricula, Felder says, and these days the research is gaining respect. Although her early work was very nontraditional and the tenure process was tense, Sheppard did get it. Recently, she was promoted to full professor. “On noting her recent promotion to full professor, our school of engineering dean stressed that the promotion is for her contribution to fundamental knowledge in engineering—no mention of teaching, just the fundamentals!” Leifer says. “That’s the way it should be.”
The perspective of the student is an integral part of education research, says Sheppard, who is also heading a longitudinal study of student development under an NSF grant. The study, which relies on interviews, surveys and even performance tasks, follows 160 students at four major institutions through at least their junior years. A third of the students are women and underrepresented ethnic minorities. “We want to find out why those numbers aren’t changing,” Sheppard says. “Half of law schools are women. Half of medical schools are women. Women obviously want to work hard and have the intellectual horsepower.”
Sheppard knows that it can be difficult to be the only woman in a research group or even a classroom. Six years ago, she founded the Mechanical Engineering Women’s (MEWomen) group to provide a forum for women to feel more supported and empowered. “Many of the females were coming to her sad, frustrated or confused, wondering how to continue,” says Ph.D. student Kuchenbecker, a past president of the group. The organization not only provides a support group for women, it also runs a class called Women Perspectives in Engineering. Each winter quarter, the class brings in 10 female speakers, usually from technical fields, to talk about their work experiences and the hurdles they may have encountered. “It’s an amazing feeling to be in a room that’s 90 percent women who are almost all engineers asking questions that are pertinent at our age, such as ‘How do I get tenure?’” Kuchenbecker says. “It’s one of the things that have kept me going. Role modeling is so powerful. It’s really hard to picture yourself in a role without having seen someone else do it.”
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Photograph by Robin Twomey