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“Designing Engineers”: Opening the doors to Engineering

Posted: 13 December, 2017

A Lecturer in Multidisciplinary Technologies and a researcher in the DIT CREATE group, Professor Shannon Chance aims to help grow engineering into a more diverse and creative profession, particularly through the exploration of innovative teaching methods.

Research Story - Shannon Chance

At the heart of Professor Shannon Chance’s research is her drive to support women in their Engineering studies. In her own career, she didn’t have to look far for a role model. Her mother, Cynthia Mara, founded a nursing programme and a hospice (both thriving, many decades later). “Mom earned her PhD the day I got my Bachelor’s in Architecture and she’s always inspired me to reach higher.” Her sister Heather Massie, an actress who plays the movie-star inventor Hedy Lamarr, also inspires.

Concerning role models more generally, she points to “fabulous female architects, like Julia Morgan, Denise Scott Brown and Zaha Hadid” but stresses that most women architects haven’t gotten the recognition they deserved, “and we need to fix that.”

Engineering for all

Shannon is currently working on a research project in which she interviewed 37 women studying engineering in Ireland, Poland and Portugal. She is now conducting follow-up interviews with the same students, to learn about their experiences over time. The work is unique in scope and scale in the context of engineering research in Europe, due to its focus on collecting qualitative, longitudinal data in a diverse set of countries.

Emerging findings show that many of the Irish women interviewed went to schools where physics wasn’t offered, whereas the Polish women fondly remembered doing physics experiments in middle school and having a wide choice of high schools that included specialised science and technology schools. “Gender wasn’t identified as a central component in their choice, or in their experience of school, the way it was here.” Another finding is that Irish girls “don’t have access to enough teachers and advisors with knowledge of engineering and technology.” Shannon is using her interview data to make policy recommendations for improving the education system in Ireland with the goal of helping to attract and retain more diverse students in Engineering.

This goal of making Engineering more accessible informs much of Shannon’s research. Students who have participated in her research studies appreciate group-based learning and hands-on design projects, ranging from design and construction of robots and bridges to design for energy conservation. They welcome opportunities to work in groups of diverse students, particularly when they are not isolated as the only female or only minority student on a team that is otherwise homogenous. Shannon explains that when teachers choose the teams rather than leaving it to the students to decide, minority students have a better chance to work with Irish students and students from outside of their own culture. International students in her study say they would not have the courage to approach mainstream students and ask to be on their teams.

Shannon has long been interested in bridging the arts and sciences, as well as teaching, “so I became an architect and then a teacher of architecture.” She sees great potential in introducing “unique aspects of how we teach architecture” to engineering students, and helping plan projects that get students of engineering and architecture working together. “There’s so much room for creativity. I think that engineering needs to focus more attention on developing creative skills, and that the way we teach architecture provides a very useful precedent. I want to bring active, hands-on pedagogies to students of engineering. Engineering can and should be a creative endeavour. Visualizing it as purely mathematical problem-solving results in less robust designs.” Shannon recommends, for instance, giving all engineering students instruction in basic design process, encouraging students to sketch free-hand and helping students to combine reflective writing with making diagrams and visual notes. These are tools used in architecture to improve design and encourage skilful design thinking.

RoboSlam

“My engineering colleagues at DIT do a great job reaching out to second-level students. Since 2013, Dr Damon Berry, Dr Ted Burke, Mr Frank Duignan and I have organised             RoboSlam, which provides robot-building workshops for beginners. We have a lot of fun doing what we love, sharing it with people of all ages, and showing them that designing, building and coding robots can be fun, creative and rewarding.”

Next steps

Following stints as a Fulbright Scholar and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at DIT, Shannon is soon heading to London for two years on a new fellowship through the Marie Curie programme. She will work with experts at University College London to learn new research skills, which she plans to bring back to DIT. Her project is titled: ‘Designing Engineers: Harnessing the Power of Design Projects to Spur Cognitive and Epistemological Development of STEM Students’. She will collect data in four European countries—evaluating the role of design projects in the learning, epistemological development, and retention of students—with a focus on women’s experiences. Her overarching goal is to develop and promote better ways to teach and support STEM students.

To students wishing to pursue Engineering or a PhD, Shannon says, “Find mentors of both genders who you can go to for advice. Finding good mentors can make a world of difference."