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Vicki May on What It Takes to Be an Engineer

Sep 02, 2014   |   by Kimberly Swick Slover   |   Dartmouth Now

The Dartmouth Professor Talks: Vicki May is an associate professor at Thayer School of Engineering. She was named the 2013 New Hampshire Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Professor May talks with Dartmouth Now about why she doesn’t do lectures, how cool engineering can be, and why she writes for The Huffington Post.

You often say anyone can be an engineer. Why do you believe that?
Too often people think engineers are super smart. A kid who doesn’t have a super strong math or science background—but who is a tinkerer and likes to build and make things—could definitely be a good engineer. They’ll have to learn some math and science eventually, but if they’re persistent enough they’ll figure it out.

You describe engineering as fun, creative, inventive, and cool, but you also cite a recent survey showing that most people view engineers as smart and boring and the field as difficult. Are these outdated perceptions?
Many years ago architects and engineers were the same thing—master builders. The field of engineering has become increasingly specialized, especially at schools and in some companies, and that’s made the field more narrow and scientific. But I think science and engineering should be about discovery. The engineers who design and build things and come up with creative solutions for interesting problems have fun and exciting jobs. I think the maker movement is helping to shift engineering back to a broad, inventive field, but we’ll see.

Engineering education is one of your passions, and you work with both high school and college students. What is the most effective approach to teach engineering?
There’s lots of evidence that standing in front of a group and talking at students doesn’t typically result in a lot of learning. I try to focus on hands-on, inquiry-based activities in my classes, on exploring questions as opposed to delivering content. Every class I teach has a project. With graduate students it’s more open-ended; they come up with questions they want to investigate and do their own research projects. With undergraduates we do group projects. Projects are important to me to create context around engineering theories and concepts.

I work with high school students in the summer in my “Design It, Build It” workshop. I teach them a little about computer-aided design and give them a lot of time to draw for themselves. It’s super empowering for them to draw something and then go to the machine shop and cut it and build it.

In the first week, I talked to them about wind energy and then they built wind turbines and measured how much power they generated. They also designed and built gliders. I could have simply talked to them about the principles of aerodynamics, but experimenting with their own gliders and then tying those principles to their gliders, they’re more likely to remember the concepts.

You’re also passionate about changing the demographics of engineering to attract under-represented groups. What is the best way to do this?
This week I’m having lunch with a young woman from a very poor background who expressed interest in engineering. She participated in the Summer Enrichment at Dartmouth (SEAD) program, which targets disadvantaged schools and brings students here to show them they can go to college, too.

Addressing the needs of students from poor backgrounds with parents who didn’t go to college is very different from addressing the needs of students whose parents and grandparents went to Yale or Harvard or Dartmouth. They both have the capacity; we just have to support one group a bit more. There’s no easy answer. They need mentors, tutors, role models, more classes—whatever support we can give them.

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