Ruth Streveler: Following the shiniest thing

Ruth StrevelerRuth Streveler entered the field of engineering education research through the education side, rather than through engineering. When she brought her expertise in teaching and learning to the Colorado School of Mines, she became particularly interested in engineering education, due to the engineering-focused setting.  Dr. Streveler helped lead the Rigorous Research in Engineering Education (RREE) workshops, and is currently faculty in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She is heavily guided by her intuition for “shiny things,” and sees engineering education as a discipline so new that everybody has to blaze their own path through it.

The profile below was authored by Mel Chua, Purdue University, based on an interview with Dr. Streveler in 2014.

Dr. Ruth Streveler
Associate Professor
Purdue University, School of Engineering Education

Ph.D., Educational Psychology, University of Hawaii, Manoa, 1993
M.S., Zoology, The Ohio State University, 1977
B.A., Biology, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1975

Merging education with engineering

I am an educational psychologist, and I’m interested in how people learn. I came to the Colorado School of Mines as a student support person for students who are low income and/or first-generation college students. A couple of our students were in engineering, but I really didn’t know much about engineering when I started. I thought “diff eq” was spelled D-I-F-F-Y-Q, and I knew it was some kind of math, but I didn’t know it meant “differential equations,” or what they were used for.

I really like working with engineers. Because I was trained in science, it was not like I was an English major and freaked out by math or science. I just didn’t take as much math as the engineers did. There’s kind of a divide between the humanities people and the engineering science people. Often the faculty development person is from the humanities side. Most faculty development people are really afraid of engineers, so they run away from engineering faculty. They think they’re grumpy.
When I moved to the School of Mines, one of the very first visitors I had was Mike Pavelich, who was running the teaching center there. He said, “Oh, I heard you used to run a teaching center in Hawaii,” and I said, “Yeah.” Lo and behold, I got a call or an email one day from the Vice President of Academic Affairs saying, “Mike Pavelich is taking a sabbatical, and he would like you to run the teaching center while he is gone. By the way, he doesn’t really want to do it again when he comes back, so maybe you can keep doing it.” I said, “Yeah!”

When I was there, I decided that the emphasis should not be on teaching. It should be on learning. I think when people think about teaching, they think very much about, “What am I doing as a professor?” It really isn’t about them. It’s about their students. Not that we can’t do things to foster people’s learning, but the learning goes on in the other person, not in us. I also think that if you understand how people learn, you can derive good teaching practice. It’s just like memorizing a formula versus knowing how to derive it. Let’s say you’re told that active learning is good. If you know how people learn, you see that they have to be engaged. I found that what made a huge difference in having faculty get excited about teaching was to have them feel that they could derive and create their methods, instead of somebody telling them what to do.

A lot of teaching centers are the place you get sent if you’re not that good at teaching. Even the title of the center at Mines, the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, sounded like, “If I go there, I’m not effective.” I didn’t like that idea. So I said we should have it be a research center on learning. I started working to change the name of the center to the Center for Engineering Education.

The accidental beginnings of the Rigorous Research in Engineering Education workshops

My single most significant contribution would be the Rigorous Research in Engineering Education (RREE) workshops. Seeing the impact of those three years of doing those workshops on the 150 people that went through it, and seeing that there was a huge shift in some of those people and what they did, what they contributed to the field, and where they’ve gone to. I think that was a pivotal point for them. I’ve heard people talk about the growth of engineering education and actually mention RREE as kind of a pivotal point. It was the first thing that I wrote that was really my idea; I really was the intellectual lead on it.

The idea for the RREE workshop started in the hotel in Chicago, when I was there for the 2003 AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference. Barbara Olds and I had written a workshop grant proposal for people that were not newbies in engineering education, and it had gotten declined. So in rethinking the grant, I thought, “We’ll have workshops on active learning.” I was sitting in the hotel and looking through some flyers, and I saw a workshop they were doing at Bucknell on active learning. Well, somebody already did that, so I needed a new idea. I was just sitting there, and somehow the idea, “Oh, we should do doing rigorous research in engineering education!” comes into my head. I don’t know where it came from. Then later, I talked to Barbara and said, “Barbara, here’s our product.”

We did not know it was going to be such a big thing. So we wrote the grant, and we got the grant, although it takes a while to work itself through the NSF grant process. I generally go off somewhere right near my birthday, so we had told the people at NSF, “If we don’t know about this before my birthday, we can’t possibly have the workshop in August. So we’ll just have to wait another year before we have it.” So they let us know right before I left on my birthday trip. We went to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, where it’s totally off the grid. My colleague, Karl Smith, said, “Don’t worry. We’ll probably be trying to pull 20 people in, so I’ll handle it while you’re gone.” The people at ASEE had said, “We’ll just send this out through the engineering deans list.” They did, and the 20 spaces filled up in two hours. By the time I got back a week later, there were 85 people that wanted to take it. They had been clamoring at Karl, and he has never let me forget that he had to deal with these extra 65 people who couldn’t get in. So no, we had no idea it was going to be a big thing.

Being marginalized as an engineering education researcher

Two really crucial people in my pathway were Ron Miller and Barbara Olds, who were also at the Colorado School of Mines. They let me be a partner with them and learn the ropes with them, and they introduced me to their contacts, many of whom didn’t really give me the time of day initially. I was a newbie. I had not brought in any money yet. Suddenly, when you get your first big grant, people pay attention to you. It would probably be like an actor that wins an Oscar. Suddenly everybody treats you well. If you’re in some off-Broadway play, they don’t even want to say hello to you. You remember who those people are.

The biggest challenge was being at the School of Mines and not really having people who really did engineering education as their thing. For those who did this work, it had to be a side issue, not their main thing. That was the main reason I switched to Purdue, because I felt that the environment at the School of Mines was really limiting what I could do. Getting graduate students, research associates, other people to work with you—the pool was not there.

When you hire people for a project, you need somewhere to put them. Well, where are we going to put these people? Some of the people that I hired moved three times. “Oh, we’ll put you in this office. No, in this building. Oh, we’re tearing that building down. We’ll put you over there.” So there wasn’t really a place for things. That becomes important. It makes you feel that you’re not really part of things.

Coming to Purdue’s School of Engineering Education

When I came to Purdue, I pretty much already knew everybody who was here. I knew Monica Cardella when she was a master’s student. I knew Monica Cox when she was a grad student, Alice Pawley when she was a grad student. I knew Maura Borrego from forever, before she was at Virginia Tech. If you’re around long enough, you know everybody.

Robin Adams has been a good friend through all of this. I knew her back in the day because she worked with Cindy Atman, and I had projects with Cindy. When Robin was coming to Purdue, I followed her through that process. Then when I decided I was going to relent and come to Purdue, she was the first person that I told. I remember e-mailing her and saying, “Is it really so bad in Indiana?” Then her e-mail was something like, “Hahaha, we’ll put you on the targeted recruiting list.” The rest is history. Being back in the Midwest where I grew up and never thought I would live again was quite a shock for a while. I left Columbus, Ohio, in 1977. I was on my way to Hawaii and I thought, I ain’t never coming back—never, never, never. So 30 years later, here I am.

When things are new, there’s a lot of forming and storming—trying to figure out what people are doing. There were very few associate or full professors in the department at that time, so the assistant professors were doing things that assistant professors don’t usually do. It’s nice to be there at creation, but it also adds to the workload tremendously.

Starting on the tenure track later in life

Purdue was my first tenure-track faculty position. I started out as an assistant professor at the age of 52. There are advantages and disadvantages to starting on the tenure track late. The advantage is you can get a lot farther a lot sooner. Just recently, I was thinking, “Oh, well maybe I should do this, this, this,” and then I thought, “Streveler, you’re going to be 70 years old by then. Do you really want to do that when you’re 70? Hmm, maybe not.” If I was 40 right now instead of 60, I’d say, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” So that’s the disadvantage. The advantage of doing it later is that you don’t go so crazy. I see people that started tenure track right after their Ph.D., and I’m thinking, “If I were 30 years old and dealing with this, I would be insane.”

When you are not in a tenure-track position, you still need to do the things that are going to get you hired as tenure-track faculty, which is publishing and bringing in money. Often that’s not part of our regular job. So you need to be willing to do things that aren’t part of your regular job, which usually means they come out of your hide. But if you are willing to do that, then yes, you can definitely get onto the tenure track later.

Making an impact through writing

If I were to do it again, I probably would have written more, sooner. If you don’t write it, the community has a hard time accessing it and building on it and citing it. I’ve come to a different understanding of writing as something that I want to do so that my ideas have a legacy. If I do workshops, in order to impact people, then I have to keep doing workshops. There’s nothing that kind of cycles along without me.

Writing can spread farther. For example, when I was in Student Services, I would have 35-year-old men in my office weeping over diff eq. I would talk with them and try to give them strategies and make them feel better, but that was one person. I thought, you know, if you do research, you can figure out how this whole learning thing works. Maybe you don’t have to impact people one at a time.

On following the shiniest thing

Do what you love, and don’t give up—the thing that you get up at 3:30 in the morning to read, the thing that makes your eyes light up when you talk about it, the thing that you keep thinking about. When I was on sabbatical, I could spend my afternoon reading what I wanted to read. Anytime someone asked me to do something besides that, I had to say, “Do I really want to do that other thing, when I could be reading? No, I don’t.” So that’s how you know what you love.

The shiny thing can definitely detract from productivity. So I’ve tried to learn how to find the shiniest thing, and really get clear about what the shiniest thing is, and let myself ignore the less shiny.

Creating one’s own path

Before engineering education was a field with departments and tenure-track lines, everybody realized they were pioneers. That’s how you got into this. You did what you loved, and you didn’t care about what people thought, because there wasn’t a path for you. You had to make your own path. Get out the knife and cut down the branches ahead of you.

Now that it’s a field, I sometimes see students who think that it’s a path. It’s still really not. There are so many more opportunities for people who are willing to make their life and make their career instead of find one. So my advice to aspiring people is probably, if you think it’s a straight path, this isn’t for you.

I’d say you’re the second generation of immigrants into this new land. One thing that I think is glorious is working with people who could dive into engineering education as the thing that they love. That they would surpass the earlier pioneers in integrating technical knowledge and learning science and educational methods. The current pioneers are either like myself, who have come from the educational side and learned conversational engineering, or they are engineers who have learned conversational education. The newer scholars are more truly bilingual and bicultural.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • How does Dr. Streveler’s trajectory from education into engineering education help you think about what it means to be an engineering education researcher?
  • Dr. Streveler reflects that although the path to becoming an engineering education researcher is more established than it used to be, it’s still not a straight or clear path. In your experience, is this true? In what ways have you had to “get out the knife and cut down branches”?

Photo provided by Dr. Streveler.