Rebecca Brent: A change agent for faculty development

Photo of Rebecca BrentRebecca Brent is a creative and innovative educator who strives to improve education through faculty development programs. Dr. Brent started her career as a primary school teacher but moved into higher education after she realized her satisfaction at working one-on-one with educators. As the president of Education Designs, Inc., Dr. Brent has given nearly 400 education-related workshops and has authored numerous publications on instructional methods and faculty development, classroom applications of technology in K—12 and college education, peer review of teaching, and a variety of other topics in teacher education.

The profile below was authored by Scottie-Beth Fleming, Georgia Institute of Technology, based on an interview with Dr. Brent in 2014.

Dr. Rebecca Brent
Education Designs, Inc.

Ed.D., Elementary Reading/Language Arts, Auburn University, 1988
Ed.M., Elementary Education, Mississippi State University, 1981
B.A., Elementary Education & Music Education, Millsaps College, 1978
Certificate in Evaluation Practice, The Evaluators’ Institute, The George Washington University, 2008

Teachers as students

A large theme within my overall career path, and in particular my path to engineering education, has been a focus on guiding other educators as they transform their teaching practices. I started as a primary school teacher, earning my Master’s in Elementary Education while also teaching children in grades K–6. I started my doctoral program not knowing what I was going to do after graduate school. I wanted to continue working in the classroom, but I felt as though I needed more intellectual stimulation beyond the general day-to-day teaching activities. While working on my doctorate, I had the opportunity to supervise teacher education students. It was exciting to work with beginning teachers, and I loved being a part of such a transformational period for those educators just starting their careers. Those experiences led to the realization that I wanted to focus my work on teacher education.

As my career continued, I eventually met and married engineering professor Richard Felder. Rich and I combined efforts and started creating workshops together. While working as the Co-Directors of Faculty Development with SUCCEED (Southeastern University and College Coalition for Engineering Education), we started questioning how to help beginning faculty members be successful. Particularly, we wanted to give faculty members a good teaching foundation so that they would eventually be able to incorporate more innovative teaching practices. Through our work with the SUCCEED coalition, we implemented an ongoing faculty development program at North Carolina State. It was through SUCCEED and my work with engineering faculty, that I became interested and invested in engineering education specifically.

In developing workshops, Rich contributes his engineering expertise and I contribute mine in teacher development. It has been great fun for me to come into the engineering world and to work with the faculty and graduate students. Engineers are very creative and innovative people who take an idea and run with it, but the way they interact with speakers and ask questions is much different from what happens in education. I’ve had to learn a lot about the engineering world to be able to work effectively with the faculty.

For example, like many of my colleagues in education I’m a “strong feeling” type more than a “heavily thinking” type of person. When I started to work with engineering faculty, I didn’t find it to be a particularly warm environment.  I still laugh when I think about one of our first workshop feedback forms, which contained the comment, “Rebecca smiles too much.” All I could think was, “What does that mean?” With Rich’s help, I learned that it’s code for, I’m too soft, too invitational, too touchy-feely. That was a big transition for me, to figure out how to still stay me while influencing faculty members. I think I smile just as much now, but I’ve learned how to speak with more authority.

I’m most proud of my work with the ASEE National Effective Teaching Institute (NETI) and the impact those workshops have had on beginning faculty members. There’s nothing more gratifying than to find out that someone has really changed as a result of directed faculty development programs. It was particularly satisfying to survey several hundred NETI alumni several years ago and to see how many of them were influenced to write learning objectives and use them to guide every aspect of their course development, get students actively engaged in class, regularly read education-related journals, and attend ASEE conferences.

Changing faculty perceptions of the classroom and teaching

Through my faculty development experiences, I’ve found that when trying to change perceptions of engineering faculty, it’s important to show that the teaching methods I’m recommending are well-grounded and supported by research. I also believe that it’s important for me to practice what I preach. For example, when discussing student engagement and active learning techniques, I fill the workshop with brief activities that engage the faculty participants, allowing them to experience what I’m encouraging them to do with their students. They are then able to see the difference between a typical lecture-based classroom environment and an engaging one.

Another aspect of persuading faculty members to adopt new techniques is to give them small steps to take that will give them a lot of bang for their buck. I’ve seen people make incremental changes after leaving a workshop, and then when those changes work, they may make others, and eventually, their teaching is considerably different from when they started. If they tried to do it all at once, they would probably fail.

Back to my roots

After working with engineering faculty for many years, I realized that I was losing touch with my world, the world of education. About this time, a friend of mine was performing a program evaluation for a K–12 school. She really needed somebody with expertise in elementary classrooms and asked me to come help. I loved working with this project, and subsequently I decided to pursue a program evaluation certificate through George Washington University. I earned my Certificate in Evaluation Practice in 2008 and began working with programs in both K–12 and higher education institutions.

One program evaluation project that has been very positive and gratifying is my experience as an evaluator for the ADVANCE program at NC State. As the program evaluator, I helped department heads interpret the results of a climate survey, and we discussed different features of the department that could be addressed to improve the climate. I enjoyed working with the heads one-on-one and talking about what surprised them in the data, how they felt about it, and what changes they wanted to make.

Family and peer support network

My most significant support has come from my husband, Rich, who has had a gentle influence on me over time and really encouraged me to make my work more practical. I’ve always been pretty practical, because I taught methods courses in education. But Rich has a strong career emphasis on how to make change happen. Together, we’ve come to a lot of new understandings.

My interactions with peers and colleagues have also led to new ideas I wouldn’t have thought about without their influence. There’s a large cadre of women in the field who have been really important to me and with whom I’ve been able to identify, such as Cindy Atman, Barbara Olds, and Sheri Sheppard. Cindy and I entered the field around similar times and developed alongside each other in very different directions. I appreciate her vision for big ideas and big projects.

Cindy and other members of the cadre have been invaluable in helping me face my biggest internal challenge, the feeling of being an impostor. Occasionally, there’s a little voice in the back of my head saying, “I never even took a calculus course. What do I think I’m doing here?” Over the years, I’ve steadily gotten better at identifying and managing those feelings. As I’ve talked to people over the years, it’s really incredible how frequently feelings of being an impostor come up in conversations. When you recognize those feelings in somebody else whom you completely respect, it’s a wake-up call, and it makes you think, “Maybe this is a scam we’re playing on ourselves.”

Applying engineering education research in the classroom

Everything I’ve done in engineering education has involved faculty development and has centered on classroom teaching practices. I don’t have a strong interest in fundamental education research, but I am interested in connecting research results to actual learning environments. I strive to answer the question, How can educators use research to create a classroom that effectively promotes students’ learning?

I’m happy to see people entering the field who are really interested in how students learn engineering material. When they plan their research, I only hope they continually ask themselves, “How will this work improve teaching and learning?” While the research might not have an immediate effect, it is much more likely to prove useful to teachers and students and to be personally satisfying to the researcher if its potential impact is constantly evaluated.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • For educators looking to transform their classes, what small changes can you make today that will improve your students’ learning?
  • Dr. Brent reflects that her interactions with peers and colleagues have led to new ideas she wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. How have your colleagues helped you think differently?

Photo provided by Dr. Brent.