Sheri Sheppard, a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering with a background in the auto industry, was honored with the 2014 U.S. Professor of the Year award this past fall. The Stanford Daily caught up with Sheppard in the wake of her award to discuss her unique teaching style and how the mechanical engineering (ME) department may evolve over the next few years.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): I’d love to talk a little bit about your background. I read that you were coming from working with cars at Chrysler. How did you make the jump from that type of engineering to education?
Sheri Sheppard (SS): In working in the auto industry, I had very much enjoyed working on real products. At the same time, I was finding myself getting frustrated because I have a tendency to ask a lot of questions. When you’re dealing with products, you get answers that are firm, but you don’t do research. I was starting to see [that] my inclination was asking questions that had a longer-term horizon than production engineering. That was starting to say to me, maybe being in an environment where research is the central focus [would be good].
I had also started teaching at night, while I was working as an engineer, at the Lawrence Institute of Technology in Detroit, and I found out I loved teaching. Working with individuals to take concepts and help them make those concepts their own and the whole variety of strategies you could do that with — that was really fascinating to me, too. Those two things [helped me to start seeing] that I might have a research head about me, and [I was] starting to love teaching so I’d probably go back for a doctorate. So I did at the University of Michigan; then I was privileged with getting a position at Stanford.
TSD: Tell me about your recent Professor of the Year award — how did you find out you were nominated and then selected? What was your experience accepting the award?
SS: The idea of putting me up for nomination came from [Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education] Harry Elam [and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL)] Robyn Dunbar. It’s my understanding that there hadn’t been a nomination from Stanford ever. The award has been around since the early 1980s, and so I was very flattered that they would consider nominating me.
There was considerable work on their part and my part to put together the nomination package. It includes letters of recommendation, or endorsement, which I actually haven’t seen…It also included me writing a kind of teaching philosophy statement. That was actually very hard — both because it had to be short, less than one page, [and also] how do you take what are seemingly disparate things that you do education-wise and weave them into a story or a narrative that has some coherence? I worked on that last spring, and as I said, it was hard, but I actually very much enjoyed doing it. Then that packet of material was submitted…[and] sent off to CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education), the overall organizing organization. Then, sometime in September I got a phone call… from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which is the other organizing body for the award, saying that I’d been selected.
So, it went from the intense putting-together of the packet and then months of silence — and, to be honest with you, I had forgotten about it — to finding out that I had been selected. After that there was preparation to go to D.C. for the awards ceremony. I got to invite 25 people to come to D.C., and it was a lovely ceremony.
For me, the incredibly powerful part of it was seeing so many individuals from the variety of higher education institutions in the U.S. — from community colleges to research and doctoral institutions, all celebrating teaching. And to hear the variety of ways that teaching can happen and the ways people do inspire teaching…Now I’m figuring out how to leverage the award to move forward on thinking about teaching and learning here for Stanford. I think that our CTL has been working on making strides on how we can accelerate that.
TSD: Could you talk about your unique style of teaching that breaks from the traditional model of lectures and problem sets?
SS: I think it’s somewhat in the model of the phrase “flipped classroom.” In a true flipped classroom, students are viewing lectures online and then coming to class and doing problem solving. My class has some of that in that we do mini lectures, and then they’ll do a hands-on activity. Another thing we’ve done is taken the labs and pulled them right into the class period so that lab isn’t seen as a separate thing from the class.
[We’ve also] rethought what the role of the teaching assistants is. In some classes, the teaching assistant wouldn’t even show up to the class time. So [we’re] making them very present and responsible for a group of students within the class…It’s a much more engaged two-hour period [that is] less focused on me and more focused on students taking the ideas and working immediately to try to apply them.
TSD: How have you seen that benefit students’ learning as opposed to their just listening to you lecture?
SS: The teaching teams can identify much more quickly what [students] are getting stumped on. So it’s not this sitting there for two-hours absorbing and really not [being] sure what you’re absorbing, and then you go back and try to apply it on a problem set, and you see a lot of disconnect. Our hope is that in that interactive part of the class, some of those conundrums and puzzlements are actually getting voiced so that we can deal with them right away so that when students go to work on the problems at home — or we highly encourage them to spend a lot of time [in] office hours — that they’re further ahead in terms of understanding because they’ve already tried to use what they’ve heard in the problem.
TSD: As the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Curriculum for the ME department, what sort of departmental changes are you trying to implement?
SS: We’re thinking a lot about students having more voice in designing their degree, within guidelines. We’re seeing students wanting to add more robotics into their degree, for instance, or have a more theoretical background. We’ve been taking some lessons from some innovation that’s been happening at MIT, where students can even create the title of their engineering degree. “Design, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship,” for instance, might be a title, or another title might be “Robotics in Biomedical Application.” What MIT is finding is that those degrees are more intense than the conventional because students are really following their passion.
Right now, [Stanford ME] students don’t have a lot of choices in what courses they take, so this would be a move toward loosening things up. That takes lots of discussion among faculty to agree what would still be core for every mechanical engineering student and where the flexibility could start to be introduced. It’s a change that…really needs to be owned by the entire faculty.
TSD: What has been your proudest moment thus far as a teacher?
SS: [I had] a student a few years ago who, at the time, was pretty resistant to some of the things I was introducing in the class, particularly around communications, teamwork and effective listening. He was saying to me, “I just want the technical stuff, Sheri. The other stuff just doesn’t seem central to being an effective and good engineer.” A few years later, he came back. He had actually taken a position…as an engineer, and he said, “Now I get it. If you can’t communicate it, no matter how wonderful the idea is, it’s not an effective idea.” It just felt good that something that I felt that was right to be included in the educational process, this student had pushed back on it but came back to say, “I get it.”
Contact Rebecca Aydin at raydin ‘at’ stanford.edu.