Dr. Amy Biegalski, known as “Dr. B,” to her students, learned to love teaching when she was a graduate student. Her time working as a teaching assistant and instructor of record at the Case School of Engineering first fostered her love for curriculum development and hands-on instruction. As she joined the workforce as a consulting engineer, Dr. B continued to seek teaching opportunities, taking time to instruct students at Pellissippi community college. When an opening came at the University of Tennessee, Dr. B decided to embrace her passion for teaching and joined UTK.
Before returning to teaching, Dr. Biegalski worked for several engineering firms, including URS in Baltimore and SAIC and Jacobs in Oak Ridge. Much of her work in the Northeast involved major bridge design, evaluation, and analysis, including using sensors, load tests, and finite element models to make rehabilitation recommendations. “I really enjoyed the hands-on part of engineering, which further developed my passion,” she says. “To me, being an engineer is exciting when you’re able to climb on a bridge, see it move, and feel it shake when trucks go over it.”
After her work with the SAIC bridge national practice, Dr. Biegalski moved to other equally fascinating positions. Upon moving to Tennessee, she focused on building analysis and design, serving as the lead structural design engineer for a 148,000 SF Air Force building in Oklahoma and the analyst for the safe decommissioning of the 1.6 million SF K25 building in Oak Ridge. She was involved in all aspects of design and analysis, including steel, concrete, masonry, foundations, and more.
For Dr. Biegalski, these tactile experiences make engineering more visceral and thrilling, and they give her a plethora of real-world examples to supplement and contextualize her instruction. In her courses, she strives to give students hands-on learning experiences, team projects, and context to deepen their learning.
Facing these true-to-life challenges in class helps students prepare for careers in the field. As Dr. Biegalski explains, “You can learn physics, and mechanics, and computer programming, without doing any of these things. But it’s a lot more engaging for the students if they’re working in teams, seeing how real-world things work, and navigating randomness, variability, and design constraints.”
Teamwork is particularly important to Dr. Biegalski. She believes that learning to collaborate with others is essential for success in engineering, and she takes a careful approach to team building in her classes. “We do a lot of activities around teamwork, like a team contract and teammate matching. After we do large activities, we have peer assessment within teams… If there’s some framework around it, and then all the teams can be a little more effective.”
Dr. Biegalski believes that working on teams also helps students appreciate how diverse ideas lead to better designs. “I think just by having them work with other students with diverse backgrounds, they learn that having more people produces better results,” she says. “It’s always a challenge to learn their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses and figure out the team dynamic. But in the end, working as a team is always better.”
Dr. Biegalski’s team-based, hands-on approach brings her classes to life. She often uses dynamic tech-heavy projects to demonstrate concepts. For example, students learn to use robots, Raspberry Pis, and other equipment to explore programming functions.
“Robots work really well for programming… We start with running it on a square path where you say, ‘go straight and turn right.’ And you can repeat that multiple times. The students see that the robot never actually travels in a square path. That’s because, in the real world, things don’t do what you expect them to do.”
While having fun running robots, Dr. Biegalski’s students are also learning highly relevant concepts in engineering and technology today. Using sensors, images, and trained neural networks, students can program robots to avoid obstacles, which translates directly to the current rise of autonomous cars. “And so [students] can see that when they are programming their robots, they’re doing a lot of the things that autonomous cars are doing. We put video cameras on the robots so they can do image processing. They can read text, identify people and objects, and make decisions based on what the camera sees as well.”
Check out the video below to see Dr. Biegalski’s students at work!
Beyond autonomous cars, Dr. Biegalski thinks that the engineering industry is changing, and teaching strategies should adapt to meet new needs. Very few students stay with one career path after they graduate, and so instructors need to help students prepare for a wide variety of roles.“We need to prepare students to be very versatile,” she says. “As innovation increases, and our reliance on technology increases, students will have to be prepared with STEM skills [and] high tech skills, like knowledge of software and knowledge of computers. But then they also need the non-STEM skills, like business skills and communication skills, which are equally important.”
Dr. Biegalski also believes universities must rise to the occasion to prepare for and embrace an increasingly diverse workforce. “It’s important that we continue to reach out to people of diverse backgrounds,” she says. “So first-time college students, and ethnic minorities, and females. Whether that means we have more online classes or more satellite campuses, I think universities are needing to evolve drastically in order to bring in very different and diverse students and meet the needs of this innovative society.”
With instructors like Dr. Biegalski on the task, we know that the future is bright!
Interview quotes have been edited for length and clarity