Last year Dana Elzey, associate professor of materials science and engineering in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, received the inaugural Ernest “Boots” Mead Endowment Kinnier Award. The award is named in honor of Henry Lee Kinnier, a professor of civil engineering, who died in 2009 and who is remembered for his deep care for U.Va. students and the creative ways he engaged them outside the classroom.
The award provides funding that allowed an Engineering School faculty member to participate for the first time in the Ernest “Boots” Mead Endowment program. The Mead program which supports U.Va. professors in creating “dream idea” projects with undergraduate students. Elzey chose to use the Kinnier Award to bring together a diverse group of undergraduates who intend to pursue graduate studies in engineering. His goal was to help the students understand how to navigate the often-confusing path through graduate school as they consider careers in teaching engineering.
“I was struck at how little, if any, advising there is for undergraduates on how graduate study actually works,” he said. “Most students learn about these things through their peers and by going to websites. I wanted to deepen that conversation.”
Last fall, Elzey selected eight third-year students who had applied from departments across the Engineering School to attend a series of six dinner seminars. Guest faculty members also attended, contributing their perspectives on graduate study and engineering careers in academe.
“These intimate gatherings provided the opportunity for Jeffersonian-style conversation in some of the most interesting places around Grounds,” including Fayerweather Hall, the Upstairs Library of the Colonnade Club, and the Lower West Oval Room of the Rotunda, Elzey said.
In addition to attending the dinner seminars, the undergraduates were asked to prepare and deliver an outreach activity informing high school students about engineering as a career path.
“I wanted them to design a teaching experience to put into practice some of the things we’ve been talking about at these dinners,” Elzey said. Dividing into small teams, the engineering students worked closely with Elzey to develop their outreach projects.
The experience proved enlightening for third-year chemical engineering major Carolyn Jensen. It “expanded my views on what good teaching requires,” she said.
Her team delivered its outreach activity at Staunton River High School near Roanoke. They asked the students there to think about some of the problems around them that might require a technical solution. “The students learned much more about the engineering thought process by working through a challenge they were invested in than by simply listening to a lecture,” she said.
Adam Campbell, a third-year computer science major who was part of the same outreach team, cited survey results from the conclusion of the exercise. “About half the high school students who participated indicated they were more inclined to pursue engineering” because of the experience, he said.
Classroom exercises like this give engineering students a taste of teaching and course development, as well as a practical window into the life and work of faculty in engineering, Elzey said.
He sees another result of the Kinnier Award program that goes even deeper. “They had a rich cultural experience together,” he said. “And I sense that it deepened their overall experience of being a University of Virginia student.”
— By Cody Hartley