July 5, 2008 — As Roseanne Ford sees it, there is a special moment in the education of undergraduate engineering students when they realize for the first time what it means to be an engineer — when they have the knowledge and, even more important, the confidence in that knowledge to tackle an engineering problem on their own and solve it. Bringing students to that point is one of her goals as a teacher. "Seeing that light go on is extremely rewarding," she said.
Although Ford serves the University as associate vice president for research and graduate studies in addition to her responsibilities as a professor of chemical engineering at U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science, her dedication and effectiveness in helping students experience this evolution is widely appreciated. In February, the Trigon Engineering Society honored her with their third annual Thomas E. Hutchinson Faculty Award. Founded at U.Va. in 1924, Trigon is dedicated to helping students make the most of their time at the University and promotes service. As 2008 chemical engineering graduate Elena Aksel, one of the officers of the society, said, "Professor Ford is not only a great teacher, but also an exceptional role model. She truly cares about her students and constantly goes out of her way for them."
Ford gained insight into the obstacles that keep students from truly thinking like engineers early on in her career as a teacher. "During open-book exams, I noticed that many students flipped through their textbook looking for an example of how a similar problem was solved, rather than trying to engage with the facts and use as a basis the framework we developed in class for arriving at a solution," she said.
In addition, she believes that students are not comfortable, at least initially, in proposing a solution to a problem if not all of the information is known. "This is the approach they learned in their science classes," she said. "In engineering, the key is to identify just the information that's pertinent and act on it. You may also need to make some reasonable approximations if the precise value of a quantity is not known. For example, we often approximate the properties of aqueous solutions to be roughly the same as pure water, whereas in chemistry the focus may be on evaluating how the chemical constituents cause small changes in the solution properties."
Ford addresses the problem of confidence in two ways. She has restructured her assignments so that students cannot rely solely on the examples in the text. Rather than give open-book exams, she provides students with all the relevant information they need to solve a problem and sets them to work. She has also constructed some of her problem sets so that if students apply an equation without thinking hard about its relevance, the result yields a non-physical solution.
At the same time, Ford lavishes attention on her students, in class and out. In nominating Ford for the Trigon honor, one U.Va. student cited her "unmatched enthusiasm" for teaching and noted that she is "as enthusiastic during offices hours as in class." And no wonder. Ford selected her office in Wilsdorf Hall because it is adjacent to a small hallway lounge, equipped with white board and comfortable furniture. "It's an opportunity for me to work interactively with a group of students outside the classroom and to provide the encouragement they need to take that first crucial step as engineers," she said.