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Faculty Spotlights: Drs. Erin McCave & Darren Maczka

In this double-feature faculty spotlight, we sat down to interview two lecturers from Tickle College of Engineering’s Department of Engineering Fundamentals: Dr. Erin McCave and Dr. Darren Maczka. Read below to learn more about their teaching philosophies, educational backgrounds, and collaborative efforts towards reshaping engineering fundamentals courses.

TLI: Tell us about your instructional background. How did your professional career and other experiences lead you to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville?

EMC: I come from a family of educators and initially was the oddball of my family as an engineer. I attended Michigan Technological University to get my B.S. in Biomedical Engineering. I moved on after graduating to work for Merge Healthcare, now a part of IBM. However, after working in industry for 4 years and training numerous new employees, someone suggested I go back to school to teach. I chose to do a Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Clemson University and had the intention of using that degree to teach at the college level.

I stumbled upon Clemson University’s certificate in Engineering and Science Education while completing the coursework for my Ph.D. and fell in love with studying engineering students. This led me to teaching the first-year engineering courses at Clemson University and ever since I’ve been teaching first-year engineers.

After graduating, I moved to University of Houston to start a first-year engineering program, and then came here to the University of Tennessee to teach in the Engineering Fundamentals Program where I can combine my engineering education background and my love for teaching first-year students to better understand how to support and develop students’ engineering and problem-solving self-efficacy in the classroom.

DM: I began teaching by accident while a graduate student in Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech. The grant that had been funding my position came to an end. While on the lookout for a stipend, I responded to an email looking for an instructor of a sophomore level course.

I taught that course for several years while still in an Electrical Engineering Ph.D. program before coming to realize I was much more invested in being an educator than completing my electrical engineering research. I enrolled in the Engineering Education Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech which ended up being much more aligned with my personal and developing professional goals.

I found working with first-year engineering students rewarding and appreciated the affordances that a common first-year program provides students, so I was on the lookout for similar programs when I began my job search. The Engineering Fundamentals Program at UTK was hiring the same year I completed my doctorate. Since it also adopts the common first-year model for engineers, I was excited to continue working in a similar instructional environment.

TLI: TLI values the teaching philosophies of the university’s faculty. Tell us about yours. How did your previous professional experiences contribute to your current teaching philosophy, and how do you put your philosophy into practice when you teach in the classroom?

EMC: To me, teaching is a focus on the development of the student through engagement in the classroom, expansion of students’ knowledge, and the collaboration and interaction that occurs between students. I strive to adjust my teaching style to my students’ needs so they may learn more effectively, and gain the knowledge and passion to be successful in the future. I also ask myself if the students truly understand what they are learning. Are they gaining the fundamentals of engineering needed to succeed in an engineering discipline?

I believe that true understanding of a topic is gained when students are able to take what they know, apply these concepts to real-world situations, and evaluate and justify the outcomes.

My classroom focuses on offering an active and engaging problem-solving environment emphasizing the use of engineering tools and software. With this teaching philosophy, much of my time has been spent on increasing classroom engagement, focusing on ways to really get to know the students, and finding ways to mentor them beyond my time with them in the classroom. Each semester I strive to learn every student’s name. It is getting tougher as the class sizes continue to increase, but on average I learn at least 200 names over the course of my two-course sequence. Learning names allows me to make that personal connection with the students and hopefully provides the students with the confidence to bring anything they need to my attention.

I also offer my office hours in the EF study room, so that I am more visible to my students and have more space to help larger groups of students when they are struggling. This has been a great strategy on those weeks when there is tough material, or the students are confused on the concepts. Just last week, I averaged helping over 12 students an hour during my office hours on the previous two weeks of content. I could never do this in my office, which only has 2 chairs.

My goal overall is to develop well-rounded students who are aware of future innovations, and how they can be a part of that through the knowledge they gain in the classroom.

I fell in love with teaching first-year students due to the number of “light bulb” moments that happen as they really delve into their learning. But what keeps me going is the way I can help first-year students make the largest transition of their lives. The first year on any campus is a very large adjustment for college students, and I strive to really impact the students overall, not just learning the material but gaining the tools and strategies to become the best engineer they can be. If I can be that spark that turns the “light bulb” on for those students struggling to find their way, I have done my job.

DM: My teaching philosophy centers around sparking the natural curiosity of learners and creating an environment that fosters discussion between learners, instructors, and peers. Everyone should feel comfortable sharing their process, no matter where they are on their journey.

A common insecurity many engineering students have is sharing the “wrong” answer, or making mistakes. It is, of course, a natural part of the process for anyone, which is why I strive to be open and transparent with my own mistakes and misinterpretations of content.

I treat the mistakes I make while recording lecture material as a learning opportunity.

I identify the mistake, and model the process of understanding how I arrived at that conclusion and my approach to fixing it. My students quickly become comfortable letting me know when they see a mistake in my work, which helps foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and recognition of our shared humanity.

Another common insecurity is taking the “right” approach when solving a problem. Often students will show me some work and ask “is this the right way to do it?” My go-to response is “does it give you a result that seems reasonable?” This often leads to a discussion of how we determine “reasonableness.” While initially frustrating for students who are expecting a “yes/no” answer, I remind them of our classroom goal:

to prepare for a world in which a “right” answer hasn’t already been predetermined by someone; because, in reality, if an answer is already known, we wouldn’t be asked to solve the problem in the first place.

TLI: With these examples in mind, would you please share how you have been able to positively impact your students?

EMC: Impact is always hard to measure as an educator. Most times, you don’t really know the impact you are having with a student until years later. It is always rewarding to have students come find you to tell you they were their favorite professor, or that what they learned in your class has been helpful in their current courses.

I hope that what is happening in my courses is impacting students and the way they approach learning, life, and their careers.

Since our two-course sequence (Introduction to Physics and Modeling for Engineers I and II; EF141/142) is physics-based and utilizes a flipped classroom model, we effectively turn our students upside down to start the learning process. While the students struggle, at first, with grasping how the class runs and managing the content coming at them, we (Dr. Maczka and myself) have seen that incorporating a focus on well-being and professional development has helped some students adjust a little quicker. Our EF141/142 sequence utilizes class time speakers, an emphasis on campus, providing college resources, and lots of reflection. We hope that the students are getting the tools they need in their toolbox for future semesters and careers.

Beyond the focus on knowledge transfer and well-being, another way to measure our impact is in the recruitment of undergraduate teaching assistants (UGAs) for our courses.

Having students return to the classroom to support the next year’s students is amazing. Not only does it help the current cohort of students enrolled in the courses through tutoring, in-class support, and answering life questions, but it also helps these students learn how to mentor other students while reinforcing the basic concepts they learned.

This year, we had a record number of applicants and new hires for these UGA positions. We look for to seeing how they reinforce their life-long love of learning by giving back to the students who, sometimes, need it the most.

DM: One of the benefits of working with first-year students is the tremendous amount of change going on in their lives during that year. For many it’s their first time living on their own, they are adjusting to a college environment that for the most part feels unfamiliar compared to their high school experience, and they are exploring their own identities both professionally and personally.

Having a role in guiding students through that first year, and watching them grow into individuals who recognize the agency they have in their own lives and futures is incredibly rewarding.

I have had students who at the beginning of the semester ask, “My answer is coming out wrong, but I’m doing everything correctly, why isn’t it working?” and by the end are saying “somethings wrong here, but don’t tell me, I think I can figure it out.” I have also been able to help students connect their personal interests to a particular major and that choosing a major aligned with their interests is more likely to lead to success than picking a major that someone else says is the “best.”

TLI: In your years of teaching students, do you have a specific experience that you draw on, or a highlight that has significantly impacted your career? Please tell us about it. 

EMC: For me, the turning point from just getting a degree to teach to seeing myself as a teacher was when I was a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) for the General Engineering program at Clemson University. It was my last semester of my PhD and the first time I had a class of students who were all my own.

I taught the first engineering course in the Engineering living-learning community and this is where I started to develop my love for first-year students. Especially the way they crave knowledge, test the boundaries of the classroom and learning, and come to those “light bulb” moments.

This is also where I began to synthesize many of my current teaching practices I still use today, like conducting my office hours in a common space. After teaching within this community for the year, I ended up getting the Engineering LLC faculty teaching award. This helped solidify my passion for the first-year classroom and those students who are struggling.

DM: The first time a former student came up to me and thanked me for the course I had taught. Hearing them share that the specific skills I had taught them helped land them an internship began to “close the loop” in my own mind regarding “is what I’m doing really making an impact?”

A very different experience, the first time a student openly questioned an assertion I made in class, initially made me very uncomfortable.

I was reminded of something a professor of pedagogy had told us when I was a student, that learning comes from a place of discomfort and if we never leave our comfort zone we won’t learn.

For that reason, I continue to be aware of times when I am uncomfortable with material I am teaching, or with students’ reactions to it, and choose to see it as an opportunity to learn and adapt.

TLI: Based on your past experiences and the current professional perspective that you have shared, what do you think about the future of teaching, learning, and faculty life in higher education? How do you think your work, the university, and/or the field of faculty development will evolve?  

EMC: The future of teaching, learning, and faculty life is ever evolving.

As we are, hopefully, transitioning out of the first global pandemic in a century, this has greatly impacted how faculty operate in the higher education setting. Especially as we have started to see a change in focus on students and student support both in and outside the classroom.

The unintended consequences (e.g. high school preparation, well-being / mental health, external student commitments, etc.) are topics faculty should be talking about more, so that we are reflecting on the classroom pedagogies and practices that now fall short or no longer work in the way we first intended.

We are in a time of change and need to consider how everything happening in the world, even when not related to our classroom content, is impacting how, when, and where our students are learning as well as what they are learning, and how they will adapt as the world changes.

UTK faculty should get involved with the office of Teaching and Learning Innovation to keep up to date on teaching innovations, and continue to share how and what has worked in their classrooms.

Their unit has been a great avenue for sharing my experiences as part of a team, especially with developing a new course sequence for a population of students that our college struggled to connect with before.

Beyond these University professional development opportunities, I am also part of the American Society for Engineering Education. This community has been essential for me when it comes to discussing, researching, and providing resources for the engineering classroom and moving engineering education practices forward. Being involved in these discussions about how we can implement research into practice and implement new teaching pedagogies is important in creating an environment that is equitable for all students.

DM: We living a changing world, we need to continually be evaluating our own teaching practices, content, and learning outcomes to maintain relevance for the world that our students are entering.

For example, ChatGPT has been on the minds of many faculty and administrators.  We must strive to adjust relevant learning outcomes, skills, and lessons to recognize that ChatGPT and other large language models are becoming ubiquitous tools, similar to the introduction of comprehensive internet search engines in the early 2000s, or electronic calculators before that.

Outside of very specific use cases we must reject wholeheartedly the concept of tools like “lock down” browsers, which create an artificially constrained environment for testing. The market for these types of tools comes from an assumption that the education model that existed in the past is perfect, fixed, and must be maintained at all costs, when in reality the reverse is true.

The questions we must be asking ourselves and putting into practice is “given the tools now available, what skill sets do graduates need to best make use of those tools?” and adjust our learning objectives accordingly.

This is not to say we must accept all new technology as a matter of fact, far from it. As faculty we must be continue to critically engage with new technology, and help students view technology, both new and old, through a critical lens. Especially in STEM fields in which many of our students will go on to contribute to advancing existing technology or developing new technology.

We must help them recognize that “progress” is not synonymous with “technological advances” and that technology will always be an extension and reflection of the human values that we embody when designing it.