Last fall, the College of Engineering launched a doctoral program in engineering education. Among its first Ph.D. candidates is Kelsey Scalaro. After five years working in industry—primarily with Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) as a design engineer on spacecraft systems and radar programs—Scalaro is looking forward to joining her experience in the field with an interest in delivering equitable learning opportunities for engineering students.
“The engineering education program focuses on students,” Scalaro said. “Teachers have to consider all groups and make sure no one is left out. In the program, we try to figure out how to reach different types of students. How do we teach in ways that every person has a chance to equitably succeed?”
For Scalaro, the development of a student’s sense of themselves as capable engineers is crucial. When she herself was an undergraduate, two experiences were important to her growth as an engineer: A visiting professor emphasized the value of learning how to teach yourself and why self-teaching was vital, particularly after graduation, and Department of Mechanical Engineering Lecturer Angelina Padilla created an environment of positivity.
“Dr. Padilla did an incredible job of teaching,” Scalaro said. “When things were hard, it didn’t mean I wasn’t good enough. She never made us feel we weren’t enough.”
Although Scalaro began her graduate career by taking one class at a time, she now has a full slate of responsibilities. This spring, she is finishing her M.S. in mechanical engineering, and she serves as the graduate student coordinator for the “Creating Retention and Engagement for Academically Talented Engineers” (CREATE) program. Funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s S-Stem program, CREATE provides exceptional engineering students with scholarship funding and a range of curricular and co-curricular support like peer and faculty mentorship, intrusive advising, and cohort building.
Scalaro’s role with CREATE includes data collection, running the program’s 2-3 seminars each semester, and serving as a resource for students to ask questions. The experience has been crucial to her graduate studies. On the one hand, the data collected in the CREATE program is the basis for her first conference paper, and on the other, working so closely with the CREATE scholars has expanded her understanding of what makes a teacher effective.
“I used to have a very narrow view of what a good teacher was,” she explained. “It’s not just putting knowledge in someone’s head. You have to consider populations. You have to consider all groups to make sure that a lesson doesn’t inadvertently leave someone out. The choices we make—even the smallest things we put in place—can have broader impacts.”
Much as Dr. Padilla created an environment where her students could see themselves as capable and, as a result, they succeeded, Scalaro’s philosophy on teaching revolves around a student’s sense of identity—both as individuals and as part of cohorts, like those in the CREATE program.
“My first conference paper is based on data from CREATE. It’s about the benefits of the cohort model and its role in helping students start to feel like engineers,” Scalaro said. “How you identify affects every other aspect of your life, and school is a social endeavor. So, identity must be supported for students to be successful.”
Identity can be shaped along many different dimensions, Scalaro explained, and one of the most important services the CREATE program provides is a baked-in sense of identity with the other scholars who are on the same path as you are. By welcoming first-year students as a cohort of like-minded students, scholars have an automatic community. Combined with the network of near-peer mentors, dedicated faculty, and Scalaro herself, this community provides access to resources and crucial social situations.
“The cohort model is hugely beneficial,” Scalaro said. “Everyone should do it, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work on CREATE.”
About the impact of the program on her own career, she said, “Before CREATE, the most exposure I had to students was as a TA in ENGR 100. Now, I get to know the students as people. There are lots of people in the program who really care about these students. We share their struggles and successes. [The CREATE scholars] are incredibly talented engineers who are going to do great things.”
When Scalaro finishes her program in 2023, she would like to put into practice what she’s learning about effective pedagogy by working either as a lecturer or a research professor.
“I’d like to work for a school with a new engineering program, and get it started on the right track. I’d like to try out what we’re learning in an environment that might be receptive.” She added, “And of course, it’d have cohorts.”