Spreading the Word on Better Teaching

Rocio Chavela, a 2011 Ph.D. in engineering education, currently serves as manager of faculty development for the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).

More than most on staff, Chavela speaks the language of ASEE's members, due to her time as an ASEE member (since 2006) before joining the staff at ASEE headquarters in 2011.

While being raised in a small Mexican village may seem an unlikely starting point for someone seeking an engineering career, Rocio knew from middle school she wanted to be a chemical engineer. “I had a teacher in chemistry who was amazing. She was not an engineer, but the chemical part came from her.” And of course, there was the money. Reading about engineers on oil rigs, she calculated what her monthly income would be and would proudly tell her family how much she could make one day soon, an astronomical sum where she grew up.

Rocio started teaching after graduation because she needed a job and wanted to earn a master’s degree while working. By teaching where she took classes, she could earn her degree tuition free. And after one year of working as an instructor at the University of the Americas, Puebla, she realized she liked it. After five years of teaching, her next step was enrolling in Purdue’s School of Engineering Education, where language and culture were the biggest hills to climb.

“Statistics was my first class, and that was simple, English-wise…but then I took some humanities-type classes, and I was overwhelmed,” she recalls. “Fortunately my fellow classmates and the faculty in the program were very welcoming and friendly, helping my transition. Perhaps the biggest adjustment was how so many people used their mealtimes to work; I was used to meals being a social activity!”

She’s been in Washington, D.C., since 2011 and enjoys cooking, dancing, and playing tourist when friends visit. While some familiars of home are missed (“the tacos al pastor can’t be replicated here, and I long for the warm weather of Mexico”), she likes the people and the cross-functional teams at ASEE and loves the opportunity to make a difference.

She brings a useful knowledge base. “We know what works in engineering education, but we don’t do it – change is hard. While raising awareness of proven teaching practices is key, systematic ways to describe and assess such practices and support structures that value and reward effective teaching are also needed.”

Maybe there’s something in the agua in her little village in Veracruz: Rocio’s sister is an engineer with Chrysler, and her brother is an engineer with Ford, both in Mexico City. A younger brother is also an engineer and is presently working on his master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Though she misses her family, with whom she Skypes regularly, she knows that Washington, D.C. is the place for her right now. “I care about ASEE’s mission and what we do here. That’s why I’m here.”

This article is posted with the permission of ASEE. It first appeared in the Summer 2014 Prism magazine.