Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Q&A with NH Professor of the Year Vicki May

By Anna Fiorentino
February 2014 • Thayer By Degrees: BE

Although engineering students don’t usually have trouble applying equations and using analysis methods, they may struggle to create appropriate models, make assumptions and analyze real structures, says Dartmouth engineering professor Vicki May. This observation led her to use project-based learning in her “Structural Analysis” course and helped her earn the title of 2013 New Hampshire Professor of the Year from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Dartmouth treehouse project
"Structural Analysis" treehouse project

“When building a real structure, students must ask questions: ‘How will this connection behave? or ‘How will we get this beam safely into the tree for a treehouse for a local park?’ They must overcome obstacles when a connection they designed doesn’t fit,” says May. “The treehouse project, in particular, required hundreds of hours of work on the part of the students, but I did not get a single complaint and students’ self-reported learning was higher than in previous terms.”

What did you think about receiving the teaching award?

I was very honored. There are so many great teachers at Dartmouth and in New Hampshire. In November I went to Washington, DC where all of the Professors of the Year—40 total nationally—were awarded a certificate during a luncheon presentation and met with Congressional representatives at an evening reception.

How do you make your teaching so accessible to students? 

I try to incorporate hands-on activities, demonstrations and projects whenever possible. Anything that will get the students engaged in learning and thinking critically about engineering. My research is focused on engineering education and my goal is to understand how to get K-12 students through college and excited and interested in engineering.

Dartmouth playhouse project
Playhouse project for The Upper Valley Haven.

What’s one example of a rewarding experience you’ve had with a student?

My class was working on designing and building a play structure for The Haven. One of the students became very invested in the project and was excited about helping homeless children, particularly after our visit to The Haven. That student even came to my office just to make sure we were really going to be able to build and deliver the structure.

What are you trying to accomplish with programs like the Summer Engineering Workshop at Dartmouth?

My goal with K-12 outreach programs is to expose students to engineering. Too often they don't understand what engineering is and what engineers do. They don't perceive engineering as creative. I'm trying to change perceptions and help students better understand the possibilities.

Tags: award, curriculum, faculty, projects, students

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