September 22, 2020
By FRANCESCA DE NES
The Viterbi School of Engineering launched Reverse-Engineering Engineering Education this fall, a program where student trainers design and deliver storytelling seminars to professors and freshmen to provide an outlet for engineering students to discuss their identities, stories and culture to promote empathy.
According to Viterbi Vice Dean of Diversity and Strategic Initiatives Brandi Jones, the purpose of the program is to create a culture for both students and instructors within the field of engineering focused on experiential learning, mattering and support.
The program is offered through Freshman Academy, a first-year course that grants new Viterbi students the opportunity to not only gain knowledge in engineering skills but also discover how engineers see the world, problem solve and explore the social, political and ethical influence of the field. The course is led by an experienced faculty member and two upper-division engineering students and with RE3 implemented, it focuses primarily on student empowerment. The program also offers Academy coaches to mentor students and share with them the resources that Viterbi offers.
In 2019, the Coalition for Transformational Education, a community of university leaders from across the country committed to transforming the education experience for undergraduate students, invited Viterbi to submit a proposal for a project to design and test ways to develop students’ experiences “through agency and providing students with a sense of purpose.” Director of the Engineering Writing Program Steve Bucher and lecturer at the Engineering Writing Program Helen Choi created RE3 with the support of the Dean’s office and were welcomed to launch the program in Spring 2020.
According to Bucher, “reverse-engineering engineering” is a play on words of one of the National Academy of Engineering grand challenges that they have set for this generation: reverse-engineering of the brain. This challenge aims to utilize students in helping professors improve in their teaching techniques.
“It’s that notion of reverse-engineering that we thought would be interesting as a name, but also as an approach to, kind of reverse-engineer engineering education,” Bucher said. “So rather than looking at this as we as faculty impart knowledge to students, why shouldn’t we reverse that and why shouldn’t we learn from the students how better to engage with them?”
Choi said that one of the main goals of the program is also to utilize experienced students to help develop a sense of understanding and community among freshmen in the school. The student trainers selected are hired for one academic year, presenting once or twice each semester.
“What we first did was find upper-class students, juniors and seniors, who have gone through the Freshman Academy program and … hired them, they’re paid through stipends, to get trained in storytelling and how to craft their own stories in a compelling way and share them with others,” Choi said.
As the program director, Choi said she felt that it was more important than ever for this incoming class to get support and develop feelings of purpose, identity, agency and community given that their first semester of college is online.
“We hit that freshman class with this program for them to understand this is a course, it is a part of their curriculum and talking about [themselves] is so important that it is a part of the course,” Choi said. “You know my story is, even if its taking part in a small story activity, my participation is critical to making this part of the curriculum effective and complete and just respecting students and being able to say, ‘I know that what you bring to the classroom is more than what I know, and you can enrich my teaching’ is a really important message that I hope students get from the program.”
Jones, the principal investigator for RE3, said the program creators did not foresee the effects of a pandemic and concurrent Black Lives Matter protests when it was proposed in 2019. However, the impact of these events has created an outlet for many students to speak about their identities in ways they haven’t before.
“Oftentimes students place their identity as an engineer in one place and then all of the rest of who they are in a different place,” Jones said. “You have them being an engineer or scholar that sits here, and them being whatever their race, gender, gender identity, gender expression, religion, ability status, political party, all of the dimensions of their identity, they sit over here. We don’t have enough opportunities to bring those two together so that a student can truly bring their whole selves to the classroom.”
Michelle Ran, a junior majoring in computer science, is a student trainer at RE3. She did her first presentation on Aug. 25 for professor Anthony Maddox’s Freshman Academy group. Ran said she was nervous to present to the class because she describes herself as an introvert and has always had trouble with public speaking, but after seeing a positive response from students she believes that it went well.
“Not only did it help me when I was preparing the presentation, just having to figure out what I wanted to convey to the audience, it helped me think through a lot of things on my end,” Ran said. “When I gave the presentation, people really engaged with it and they started getting into conversations beyond just what I was guiding them towards so that felt really rewarding.”
Ran said the program is beneficial for first-year students because many freshmen go into college without a clear idea of what success can look like. She said RE3 teaches freshmen that they are not alone in their struggles and that upperclassmen have been where they are — something that she wishes existed when she was a freshman herself.
“The freshman students I think I mainly wanted to share the lessons that I learned as a student, which was to make time for things that are valuable to you,” Ran said. “My point was to think about what is most meaningful to you in life and not just what other people like your parents or your teachers tell you is important like grades. What you find valuable might not be that and so if you identify what that is and try to make time for that it makes your life a lot more fulfilling.”
Bucher said that after hearing one of the student trainer’s stories in the early weeks of the semester, he was already able to see the importance of the RE3 program and understanding students holistically.
“The goal was to have the students share their stories in a way that helps us understand them better and it didn’t really hit me as a faculty member until I was able to hear Cheyenne [Gaima] in this case, gave her story,” Bucher said. “It was very moving in that it was an articulation of who she is in a way that I hadn’t heard before and that faculty usually don’t have an opportunity to hear. It’s always a good reminder that our students are complex people that have sides that maybe we don’t think about when we are designing curriculum and when we’re figuring out the best ways to engage them as learners.”