Developing Future Faculty: A New Engineering Education Certificate

November 11, 2015

Mechanical engineering associate professor Maura Borrego understands how difficult the transition from undergraduate to graduate student can be. Before she joined the Cockrell School of Engineering to teach engineering education, she was in those students’ shoes, facing all of the same challenges.

“One of the things that helped me with the transition to graduate school, because it was more difficult than my time as an undergraduate, was being able to do things to support or help other students. I advised students, I got TA experience, and I really enjoyed all of it,” Borrego said.

Her experience as an advisor and mentor set the path for her successful career as a researcher studying engineering education methods. Her current project, a brand new Engineering Education Certificate program at the Cockrell School, will enable graduate students to increase their teaching knowledge, making them more competitive candidates for faculty positions and better all-around communicators when they graduate.

“Students who know how to teach become better prepared and more confident communicators,” Borrego said. “They are better at balancing graduate school and handling the challenges of their later careers.”

Nationally, more experts are calling for universities to support pedagogy programs that help better prepare graduate students to teach, a skill some say hasn’t received the attention it deserves in graduate programs across disciplines.

“The timing is right,” Borrego said. “People across the country and right here in the Cockrell School are excited and ready to do things to improve engineering education.”

The certificate program officially starts in fall 2017, but Borrego is already teaching two courses: “Teaching Engineering” and “Curriculum Design and Assessment in Engineering.” Another course in the program, “Knowing and Learning,” is also currently being taught, in UT Austin’s college of Education. To earn the teaching certificate, graduates students must complete 16 credits.

In addition to attracting graduate students in engineering, Borrego says her courses are attracting students from the College of Education who are interested in STEM education. Education students are learning from engineering students and vice versa.

“We have a lot of good conversations in classes because of that diversity,” she said.

Borrego has enlisted Cockrell School faculty members to teach the certificate courses moving forward, including David Allen, Richard Crawford, Kenneth Diller and Desmond Lawler — all of whom have been teaching these types of courses for years. Additionally, several courses taught by faculty from the College of Education will count toward the certificate.

Interestingly, Borrego has found that not all graduate students are taking the courses with the goal of becoming professors.

“They are excited about a lot of different things,” she said. “Some of them are thinking ‘maybe I’ll go into industry for a while and then I’ll come back to academia.’ The classes aren’t just about teaching but also about communicating and exploring the social aspects of engineering.”

We recently sat down with some graduate students to learn more about why they decided to take the new engineering education courses.

Lauren Guckert, Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering

Why did you decide to enroll in the certificate program?

I have always had a passion for teaching and mentoring and have taken a fair number of opportunities to fill that role (tutoring, STEM outreach, being a TA, etc.). However, I was never given any formal training, guidance or feedback — especially in the engineering domain. I thought the program would be a great way to look at teaching and learning in a more critical fashion and really hone my passion into skills.

How do you think this will help in your future endeavors?

I've learned to have much more of a "big-picture" mentality when it comes to teaching and mentoring, putting an emphasis on high-level goals rather than incremental steps. It also has taught me a lot about the different ways people learn, communicate and find motivation. All of these skills are relevant both in the education field but also in industry when communicating with other groups, companies, new-hires, etc.

Would you encourage others to take the courses?

Absolutely. The courses are designed to be very interactive and conversational. This has the double benefit of honing your communication skills and exposing you to other's views and approaches. On top of that, the courses are well-structured and focused on current, real-world scenarios.

John Clegg, Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering

Why did you decide to enroll in the certificate program?

It is my long-term career goal to become a professor. I realize that in that role, both research and teaching will be very important. As a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, I spend most of my time in the lab conducting research. The certificate program will provide me with training in education to improve my teaching ability.

How do you think this will help in your future endeavors?

The certificate program will help me recognize important aspects of engineering education and help me develop my skills as a communicator, instructor and mentor.

Would you encourage others to take the courses?

I would. Independent of whether or not you are in a Ph.D. program with hopes of an academic career, as a Ph.D. student you spend a fair amount of time teaching or mentoring students, whether that be in a lecture or laboratory setting. Receiving training in education will certainly help you be prepared for, and be effective in, those roles.

Jeehyun Park, Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering

Why did you decide to enroll in the certificate program?

Since joining graduate school, I have had the opportunity to lead and participate in many K-12 engineering outreach activities, and through these activities I discovered my passion for teaching engineering. As a TA in both biomedical and mechanical engineering, I realized that I was initially poorly equipped with the tools needed to really engage the students and teach the subject matter. I wanted to combine what I learned through my K-12 outreach with college-level education. I have taken classes with Dr. Borrego and have learned so much about the field of engineering education and the huge changes that are happening.

How do you think this will help in your future endeavors?

I think it will give me the tools to teach engineering in non-conventional ways and gain insight by taking classes alongside graduate students studying education, instead of only being around other engineering graduate students who may or may not be as concerned with teaching as they are with research. It's already created a wider network for me.

Would you encourage others to take the courses?