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Courtney Faber and student Travis Bass (ME) work through a problem.

A Bridge to Success

By Whitney Heins. Photography by Shawn Poynter.

The student that gets really upset when they don’t ace a test. Courtney Faber has been there.

The student who feels completely in over their head. Rachel McCord has been there.

These lecturers’ past experiences as students themselves are what make them so great at what they do. They’ve been there. They know what students need to succeed and they’re here to help.

Faber and McCord are tasked with educating first-year engineering students to prepare them for their discipline-specific course load. The task is no small one.

“Many of our engineering students arrive here from high school where everything came pretty easy for them, and they can really struggle with the material and methods to do well,” explained Faber.

At times, first-year engineering students can become susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and giving up, but that’s where Faber and McCord come in. These faculty members view themselves as a bridge from students’ high school experiences to their college careers where they teach the engineering basics and arm them with strategies to succeed in the program.

For example, Faber’s teaching doesn’t emphasize getting the right answers. Rather, she emphasizes the process used to get there.

“We focus on the problem solving,” explained Faber, who teaches physics and engineering design to students in the Cook Grand Challenge Honors program. “We talk with them about whether the answer is reasonable and makes sense. There’s a lot of dialogue.”

One way Faber and her team does this is by not giving the teaching assistants (TA) the answers. Instead, the TAs must focus on the method rather than just comparing end results. To support this strategy, Faber works to educate TAs on how to better understand student learning. Faber also grades students on their work rather than just on whether they got the right answers.

This approach can make a big difference in a student’s overall sense of wellbeing and can be the difference in them sticking around when the going gets tough.

“Many of the students get down on themselves if they don’t get it right,” shared Faber. “So, we teach them how to manage disappointment along with how to develop the mind and skillsets to tackle complex problems.”

Rachel McCord discusses concepts in class with students.
Rachel McCord discusses concepts in class with students.

McCord remembers what it was like to always get the right answers in high school but then struggle in college with unfamiliar content and a new workload. That’s why she offers her Engineering Fundamentals students Success Enhancement and First Year Studies programs that teach them learning strategies to more rapidly adapt to collegiate life.

The programs are customized to fit students’ needs, which is something McCord is big on.

“What support a student may need differs even just based on the semester,” she explained. “For example, a major difference between a first- and second-semester student is an understanding of how to navigate the college process and how it differs from high school.”

McCord and her colleagues are always looking for new approaches that rise above the status quo. For example, this semester she is teaching a “flipped” curriculum in which she records her lectures for students to watch outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, they work through problems together.

“The students are asking more questions than they normally would have and have told me that they understand the material better,” said McCord.

If successful, McCord and her Engineering Fundamentals colleagues would like to create more active learning opportunities like this for students. In fact, it has been an important topic of discussion in the design of the New Engineering Complex which will house the freshmen programs.

“Our team is really excited about creating a curriculum that we don’t have to fit into existing spaces,” she shared. “Now we can dream how we want our classes to run and have the space fit that.”

Both Faber and McCord have frequently been told by past students about the impact they’ve had. Indeed, it seems the professors’ work has acted as more than just a bridge to college, but a bridge to overall academic and professional success. Their support has taught students transferable skills like how to communicate with others that think differently, critical thinking, and the ability to be a good learner both inside and outside the classroom.

“It is really encouraging to hear from students the difference we’ve made for them,” said Faber. “My goal is to see all my students who want to become engineers become engineers.”

“These students will be really great in their jobs as engineers because of the strategies we’ve helped them develop,” said McCord. “In the end, we want students to know that we don’t just care about their physics content. We care about them as students.”

And that, no doubt, shows in the number of successful engineers graduating from UT’s program and crossing the bridge into the real working world.