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The write stuff: FACETS project already having impacts in the classroom

September 7, 2021 - by Kim Delker

It's been a little over five years since faculty from The University of New Mexico began leading a massive National Science Foundation-funded effort to revolutionize how undergraduate engineering is taught.

photo of Vanessa Svihla
Vanessa Svihla

“FACETS: Formation of Accomplished Chemical Engineers for Transforming Society” began in the summer of 2016. The $2 million project is led by Abhaya Datye, Sang M. Han, Eva Chi and Jamie Gomez, all from UNM’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, as well as Vanessa Svihla and Sung (Pil) Kang, from UNM’s Organization, Information and Learning Sciences (OILS) program.

Svihla, who also holds the title of special assistant to the dean of engineering for learning sciences, said that due to the pandemic, the grant was extended for another year, until July 2022. Although several months still remain on the project, she said the group has already produced a lot of data, some of which is already being folded into classrooms.

“It’s been a huge success, and we’ve gotten some really good evidence about how students learn and what strategies are effective in helping them learn,” she said.

The overarching goal of FACETS has been to introduce design concepts into the engineering curriculum earlier, making the field more attractive to groups that are underrepresented in the discipline and address the urgent need to produce more engineers.

However, one of the key outcomes so far is something that wasn’t even part of the original goal: improving the written communication skills of engineering students. Svihla said that the technical writing focus emerged early on, when researchers kept hearing that many engineering students had trouble communicating technical concepts through writing. This was frustrating for professors because they put effort into giving feedback, yet saw little improvement in writing.

“Technical writing was a pain point. It was such a common complaint in engineering from professors and instructors,” she said. “It’s an important skill because engineers need to know how to write in order to communicate their research.”

Svihla said the team “went to the research” in the learning sciences discipline to see best how to approach improving the writing skills of engineering students. Since engineering professors are not English or writing instructors, they needed to have a plan to effectively give professors implementable strategies to work with their students to improve their technical writing.

“We shouldn’t expect them to have the expertise to teach writing,” Svihla said. “We found that everyone cared about teaching, but they just hadn’t had a space to talk about it.”

The FACETS team, in conjunction with Catherine Hubka, an embedded writing instructor who earned her MFA from UNM’s Department of English, quickly developed some useful strategies that engineering faculty could put to use to help students become better writers. Most of it had to do with how feedback is given, Svihla said.

For instance, one of the takeaways was for instructors to not “bleed all over the paper” with corrections and comments that can be discouraging and overwhelming to the student. Instead, instructors are encouraged to “give a little feedback, but not too much, and require that they revise what they wrote to demonstrate they can use the guidance to improve their communication skills.”

Also, Svihla said the process of peer review is useful, but not for the reason that many may think.

“The value of peer review is in the feedback you give, not in the feedback you receive,” she said. “If you teach something, then you really understand it. For students, this process of giving feedback on peers’ technical writing gives them a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and master the material.”

A learning scientist, Svihla works with Christos Christodoulou, Jim and Ellen King Dean of Engineering and Computing, to serve as a resource to the School of Engineering’s faculty interested in developing engaging and effective assignments and classroom strategies based on learning sciences research. She received an NSF CAREER Award in 2018 for Framing and Reframing Agency in Making and Engineering (FRAME) and has won numerous best paper awards for FACETS-related research.

Svihla recently co-authored a paper titled “Organizational Citizenship Behavior and Care in Chemical Engineering,” which received the Martin Award for best paper in chemical engineering from the ASEE Chemical Engineering Division for 2021 (the award is scheduled to be presented in person at the 2022 ASEE Conference). The paper showed how faculty who build caring relationships with students can offer more critical feedback to support further learning, without being seen as harsh.

“Our findings show that students work harder when they know that faculty care,” Svihla said. “It helped us affirm how important that care is in teaching.”

The takeaways from the FACETS project have mostly been implemented in courses in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, where Svihla has a joint appointment, but are also being used or considered in other School of Engineering departments.

Other results from the research are also having positive impacts on teaching, including establishing communities of practice where faculty are able to discuss teaching challenges and solutions.

“We’ve brought that community of practice idea into the faculty ranks in order to meet faculty where they are,” Svihla said.

In addition, the team is finding a lot of evidence of how students from diverse backgrounds are taking their cultural experiences and using them to enhance their learning in engineering.

“We found strengths that these students bring in helping students see everyday cultural experiences will be taken into account and seen as valuable, which helps students recognize that they belong.”

For the next several months, Svihla said the group will be keeping a close eye on how teaching methods are evolving as teaching switches from online to hybrid or in-person. She said a lot of potential exists to more effectively use online learning tools, but dangers exist, especially in terms of making sure all students have access to effective learning, whether that is online or in person.

“The pandemic was a perfect test to see if we would revert to our old teaching methods, and we did not see any evidence that our faculty reverted,” she said. “This year will be a test, but I feel confident that our faculty will use various modalities in their instruction to increase access and support learning.” Additional information about UNM’s FACETS program can be found on their website.