It was January 2017 when I accepted to join Wake Forest University (WFU) as Founding Chair of the nascent Department of Engineering and recognized that the inaugural cohort of engineering students would be joining us in August 2017 (just eight month away).
We moved quickly to recruit the founding engineering team during spring 2017 and it was July of 2017 when myself and the other three founding engineering faculty physically arrived to Winston Salem, North Carolina to launch the new program and welcome our inaugural students. Three out of the four founding faculty were women and this team represented the strongest candidates in the pool of applicants.
This team was committed to educating the whole engineer by embedding engineering education in a liberal arts context. This team was eager to challenge the traditional ways upon which we educate engineers and excited by the opportunity of having a fresh canvas to build the new program. It was a balancing act of leveraging tradition and envisioning innovation. Ultimately, we wanted to reimagine how we educate the next generation of engineers knowing the challenges that engineers face today (in contrast to the challenges that engineers faced 50 years ago). We did not know how we would achieve this vision nor what kind of students we would see in our classroom nor how many students would come our way.
WFU Admissions shared with us on May 2017 that there were 27 admitted students who checked engineering as the area of interest and 18% were women, so that is what we predicted to see in our inaugural engineering class. In August 2017, though, we enrolled 55 new engineering students in our first engineering class (EGR 111 - Intro to Engineering Thinking and Practice) and 40% were women. What had happened? All that students could have seen and learned about us was our new website, which went live in June. Our website included the founding faculty team and a welcoming message for students to explore engineering.
From Fall 2017 to Spring 2018, enrollments revealed a 90% retention from one semester to the next. For the inaugural cohort, we had an 80% retention from year one to year two (when national averages are between 40% to 60%) and declared 46 inaugural majors during Spring 2019 (42% women). What had happened? Well, a few intentional things happened:
1. Shared Vision and Values
As a new faculty team, I was committed to empowering them to create a shared vision and shared values for the program. Some of our initial meetings were simply brainstorming. Envisioning the next generation of engineers. Envisioning our graduates. Envisioning our program aligned with the University mission of Pro Humanitate (For Humanity). Envisioning how a new generation of engineers could meet the needs of society and future employers. Envisioning how faculty could model what we expected of our students. We also derived our shared values by facilitated conversations around what we values were important to us and values that were not. Such values were derived by reflecting and sharing our past work environments and experiences. Some of those experiences were positive, and some were experiences that forever marked feelings and behaviors that we did not want to be part of our program. Ultimately, we defined our shared vision (which we continue work on) and our shared values of integrity, growth, compassion, inclusion, empowerment, and joy. Who would look at this list of values and say "oh yea! those are values that describe engineering programs"? Well, that is what we wanted and set forward to accomplish. As it turns out and being intentional about it, our shared vision and our shared values informed the classroom culture we created, the pedagogies that drove student learning, the faculty ads, the entire hiring process, the way we interact with colleagues and our students, the way we operate as a team and build our program. It was about culture!
2. Messaging of Belonging
From our website ...to our email communications... to our welcome orientation session … to our syllabi ...to the accessibility of enrolling in the first-year engineering class...to the messaging in our classrooms, we sent a clear message of belonging. We were here to welcome all students and any student who was interested in exploring engineering as a profession. We were here to help them make an informed decision around selecting engineering as their major. We were here to open the doors for them and facilitate a learning environment that showcased the human impact that engineers make. We were welcoming facilitators and they were the informed decision makers. We invited students to embrace their liberal arts education and explore engineering and even go beyond engineering. We wanted each of them to define what engineering means for their whole self. As one student described "I picked Wake Forest Engineering over other programs because Wake Forest Engineering is redefining what it means to be an engineer," while another described the first year as "Wake Forest Engineering makes me feel individually recognized."
3. Integrated Curriculum and Student-Centered Pedagogies
Our curriculum represents integration and our pedagogies focus on mastery learning. With a founding team representing four distinct engineering disciplines (materials, chemical, civil, and mechanics), we knew that our BS Engineering program would have to integrate content that traditionally was stand siloed. We were all committed to taking a systems and process approach to revealing to our students how we needed to connect the engineering fundamentals and how those fundamentals cut across the traditional engineering disciplinary boundaries. Cognizant of student-centered practices in engineering education, the founding team was also committed to innovating in the classroom to align pedagogies that embodied our shared values. Problem and project based learning (PBL) as well as mastery based learning (MBL) became the driving pedagogies in our first year experience. This allowed us to merge theory and practice, as well as create of classroom culture where students were not punished for failure but rather encouraged to use feedback to master new knowledge (e.g. students were allowed a first and second submission to assignments in order to receive feedback and ultimately select if she/he wanted to demonstrate mastery via a second submission...again a decision that each student made). As our curriculum has evolved and our faculty body grown, integration and inclusive pedagogy continue to drive how we build and iterate on our curriculum.
4. Hiring and a Commitment to Building a Strong Team with a focus on Culture
As a program, with enrollments that far exceeded what the University and we could predict (90 new students in cohort two and again about 42% women), we quickly established that the most important work we needed to do as a team was to ensure our hiring processes and decisions aligned with who we are and aligned with our culture. From the language in our faculty ads, to the search process itself, to the two-day visit of our faculty candidates, our shared values were the starting place. Embracing the liberal arts and envisioning engineering within this context, scholarly diversity, student-centeredness, curricular and pedagogical innovation, as well as a commitment to diversity and inclusion were criteria that grounded the search and hiring processes. The two-day interview visit included a teaching demonstration, a scholarly talk, and even a curriculum design session with the entire engineering team. We were not shy in showcasing who we are as a program and inviting faculty candidates to take part and challenge how we were envisioning our curriculum. All exit meetings started with a discussion around our commitment to our shared values and an inclusive culture. Culture was the key to building our new program and building a strong team. It was about openly sharing who we were and the challenges we were facing, having a commitment to continuous improvement, welcoming feedback from our colleagues with openness to grow, being agile and taking quick action to improve, etc. It is a proud and historic moment this July, when we welcome five new faculty (10 of us now and 60% women). This team of founding faculty is a dream team for me and I truly feel blessed.
Don't get me wrong, building the team and the new program also came with its challenges... all this didn't just happen in perfect harmony. We will leave that for a future post.
That's if for now.
A recent article published by Wake Forest - https://news.wfu.edu/2019/06/18/wake-forests-engineering-program-builds-upon-a-culture-of-inclusivity/
Olga Pierrakos, Ph.D.
Founding Chair and Professor
Wake Forest University, Department of Engineering
Winston Salem, North Carolina