Day: March 6, 2020

Hello from Michigan Tech, and Parasailing on a Snowboard?

Are you, or someone you know, thinking about where you will choose to attend college? If so, I want to share my perspective, as I’m still fairly “new” to Michigan Tech (this is my second year here). I also have the perspective of having spent time at three different universities. Maybe it will help you make your decision.

First, the East Coast, where I attended the University of Connecticut (and the mascot there is also a Husky). My parents were only willing to pay for in-state tuition—that narrowed the choice pretty quickly for me! So I went to “UConn” and had a great education, majoring in chemical engineering, and then metallurgy/materials science for my master’s and PhD degrees (I didn’t set out to get those other degrees, but that is another story). UConn is in Storrs, Connecticut, about a 40 minute drive from the capital city of Hartford. So I would call it a rural campus. Because it wasn’t “too far” to get home, many students went home on weekends—so it didn’t have a strong sense of community. You can drive from one end of CT to the other in 2 hours or so.

After UConn, my first job was as a professor at Georgia Tech, which is in downtown Atlanta, Georgia—an urban campus in the deep South. The Atlanta metropolitan area has 5.6 million people, a vastly different experience from UConn. A great education, but, in a very big city—which comes with traffic, smog, high-priced housing, crime and safety concerns. What I really liked about Georgia Tech: it is a technologically-focused university, like Michigan Tech. I stayed 12 years at Georgia Tech, and then headed West!

Following that, I spent 14 years at Boise State University, in Idaho in various leadership roles at the university. BSU is located in downtown Boise, but the population of Boise is only about a quarter million. So a very safe campus, where the College of Engineering enrolls about 15% of BSU students. A good education for students, but nowhere near the reputation in engineering of Georgia Tech or Michigan Tech.

Now here in Midwest, in the UP, at Michigan Tech, where I serve as dean of engineering, I offer you these perspectives: It’s a strength to attend a university that is technologically focused, if your focus is engineering or related fields. This university has a very strong sense of community and belongingness. Maybe that’s because of the technological focus. And maybe it’s because it’s a long drive “home” for many. It’s beautiful here. It’s safe. And it’s fun—we’re still enjoying the snow statues, broomball, and more from our Winter Carnival. Just yesterday, in fact, I enjoyed an interesting view across the waterway, of a student and their dog, attempting to harness the wind to snowboard horizontally, pulled by the wind. Alas, the coefficient of friction was too high, or the wind was not blowing strongly enough, but they did give it a good try! And the dog was very excited about the whole operation. As was I.

I have never seen anything like this anywhere else across my years. Michigan Tech is full of interesting, engaged, curious, fun, and adventurous people.

Now, if you, or someone you know, want to know more, be sure to email me, callahan@mtu.edu.

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech


Deans’ Teaching Showcase: Rebecca Ong

Rebecca Ong
Rebecca Ong

Janet Callahan , Dean of the College of Engineering, has selected our eighth Deans’ Teaching Showcase member: Rebecca Ong, assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering department.

Ong was selected upon recommendation by Chemical Engineering Department Chair Pradeep Agrawal for her broad innovation and use of creative teaching tools. Agrawal emphasized Ong’s efforts to “adapt to students’ contemporary learning preferences by using short videos, instant feedback, on-line quizzes, and a design expo with active learning tools like think-pair-share, iclickers, and role playing.” Agrawal also pointed out Ong’s use of a “spiral” technique where specific concepts are revisited through spaced practice, and her efforts to “connect the dots” with topics from previous classes, including statistics and data handling, computational tools, technical communications and global issues.

Ong confirms that she makes repetition —and variation—a priority. In her words, “Repetition of material is key for retention. Even with the clearest instruction, few people will completely understand a new problem the first time that they encounter it. Students need to be exposed to important points multiple times, and in different ways.” She starts each class with retrieval practice, and she attempts to bring content back with “increasingly large gaps between the reinforcement” as her quizzes often cover a mix of new and old content.

Her work to embed skills in the discipline comes from her sense that things are “most engaging and best learned when linked to a context students care about.” One excellent example of this is a recent project where students had to conduct an environmental impact assessment regarding the overseas construction of a chemical plant. She elaborates, “Students had to interview someone from another country or with many years experience living in another country to give a local community member’s perspective on the proposed construction of the facility in their hometown.” Student feedback about this project indicates that students change their analysis from whether a plant was technically feasible to consider whether it should be built, considering the environmental and social aspects.

But perhaps the biggest reason for Ong’s selection was her affinity for trying new things in her teaching. Again, her own words say it best: “I like to try new things all the time, whether teaching styles, new activities, new assignment styles, new technology or tools in the classroom. Sometimes these work well and sometimes they don’t. I always tell the students when I’m experimenting and try to get feedback about specific things I’m trying for the first time.” One recent example was creating video interviews of other on-campus faculty to use as “guest-lecturers” in a course because scheduling them live was impractical.

Callahan summarizes her nomination by saying “Rebecca’s philosophy of meeting students where they are at intellectually keeps students engaged with the material and really improves their learning. It is impressive that Dr. Ong keeps trying new things in her classes, trying to keep them fun for the students while figuring out the best way for students to learn the material.”

Ong will be recognized at an end-of-term luncheon with other showcase members, and is also a candidate for the CTL Instructional Award Series (to be determined this summer) recognizing introductory or large-class teaching, innovative or outside the classroom teaching methods, or work in curriculum and assessment.