S4E31 Transcript: Engineering Education Research Briefs with Dr. Ruth Streveler

Link to Podcast Episode

Dr. Streveler:  Welcome to the Research Briefs Podcast.  I’m your host, Ruth Streveler, Professor of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. 

In Research Briefs, we’ll speak with engineering education researchers about what their lives are like, what they are finding out, and how their research is being used. 

I am pleased to welcome Dr. Natasha Perova-Mello, Founder of STEM Learning Consult, LLC:  Using theory, practice, and the psychology of online interaction to support collaborative learning in STEM.  Natasha’s research interests include online learning, use of technology to support communication and knowledge building in engineering teams, conceptual knowledge, and reflective teaching in STEM.

My second guest is Dr. Nicole Pitterson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech.  Nicole’s research interests are exploring the development of students’ disciplinary identity through engagement with knowledge, curriculum design, assessment and evaluation, and teaching for conceptual understanding.

In this episode Natasha and Nicole will tell us about their new podcast, "Reflective Teaching in a Digital Age."

And I should add that Natasha and Nicole are two of my very favorite people.  And so, I am very, very pleased to have them today.

So, can you tell the listeners about your new podcast, “Reflective Teaching in a Digital Age?” 

Dr. Natasha Perova-Mello:  Sure.  Ruth, thank you first of all for such a warm introduction and welcome.  And, yeah, just a couple of things about our new podcast that first of all it’s a place for conversation about theory, practice, and the psychology of online learning.  We’re really intrigued by aspects of the behavior of students and instructors that are different in online or remote situations as opposed to in a face-to-face basis.

And one of our goals is really to try to capture thinking in real time on the current shapes to the new ways of teaching and learning in engineering that are supported by online technologists.  And we’re also hoping to start a discussion about next steps in engineering construction relative to the new normal that our community will need to navigate in and develop effective modes of teaching.  

You know, at large are really trying to understand through this podcast how digital transformation is impacting engineering education culture that’s relative to learning, teaching, and workplace behaviors. And some of the questions that are guiding our interest, just examples of a few is that:

Where are we moving as a community?  
What do we need to pay attention to?  
What do we need to be aware of in online education?
What can we learn from people who have been thinking about and doing this for a long time?
And, how will this move to remote working and learning continue after the pandemic is over?
And, most importantly, how do engineering students need to be prepared for a different workplace where remote work is the norm?

So, it’s not about a temporary shift that’s happening now, but it’s really a shift in the mindset of how do we educate future engineering professionals?

Dr. Nicole Pitterson:  Thanks for the introduction, Ruth, and that was a really good overview, Natasha.  I just wanted to also add that in keeping with this idea of mindset is that different contexts or different learning contexts warrants the use of different instructional approaches, or even just a different way of thinking about teaching on the path of the instructors.

And so, what we were trying to do, or what we hope to do with this podcast, is to create for practitioners, so we are aiming to reach practitioners who may not have read the multiple papers about how to engage students or how to design learning spaces.  What we’re trying to give to them are key nuggets based on years of research and experience from our guests that kind of helps them in making the shift from face-to-face to online but also being intentional about how they recognize the differences that each context provides and how they try to reach the multiple students that they have in their classrooms.  

Well, you know, I think this is just a very exciting approach to this that so often either we’re just focusing on here’s the next thing, how do I use this platform, or we’re getting very kind of high-minded about thinking about the theory of it.  And what you are doing is really combining those two.  And also helping people think about, “Okay, now what is coming?  What am I going to do differently?  How are the students going to respond differently?”  

I just, as you know, I just think this is very exciting and I’m grateful that you started the podcast and that you’re letting us know about it.

I wanted to go back to something that Natasha said initially about the psychology of online learning.  I don’t know that I’ve really heard people talk about that very much, so could you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and maybe what some examples of that might be?

You know, I think for us it’s kind of a new direction of thinking about online learning because primarily we’re kind of focused on conceptual learning and the social aspect of online learning.  And then, through our interview, we began to learn that, for example, things like well there are different personality types.  You know, there are extroverts and introverts, and how they show up in online space could be very different in comparison to the face-to-face interaction.  And of course, that’s really important for teamwork because you have people who are very social and want [to engage] much more easily in a face-to-face environment yet the introverts could be very quiet.  But actually, one of conversations with Randy Garrison where he talks about how it’s really amazing to see that people who are more quiet socially, they really show up in an online space and they become very active, they contribute a lot.  So, that type of dynamic is really interesting.  And I think from the instructional standpoint, understanding what your student’s personalities are and how do you help them show and use their strengths is really important.

And just another quick one to mention also, things that we’ve heard about like psychological safety or financial leveling that are typically discussed in a face-to-face circumstances of teamwork and something that was discussed by one of Matt Ohland’s students in his defense this year, but those thing become really interesting in an online space because things like financial leveling, if you don’t show…if the students can’t really see what you have, and they just interact with you in an online space, so that’s going to again be a good way to kind of balance out inequalities from a financial standpoint and which I understand could be applicable to other situations as well.

I also think about the side conversations that you would’ve had with the students as they’re coming into the classroom, or the side conversations the students would’ve had with each other, I think that helps to build a sense of community in the classroom which in an online space is missing.  And so, as a practitioner, how do you create these opportunities for your students to engage with you and see you as a person, not just a talking head, on a computer as well as their peers?  Do you enforce the use of cameras, or are you just using little activities, get to know you type of activities that students can help build this collaboration because people don’t collaborate naturally, I think, it’s something they have to learn to do and therefore the activities, or the tasks, or the assignments in the class has to help them to foster that sense of collaboration.

And Ruth, actually in my interview with you when you talked about ‘trust’, how do you build trust as an instructor and it’s not going to happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen overnight in a face-to-face environment.  But how do you show that you care and how do you foster this connection with students?  And I think it’s especially interesting in the context of first-year engineering students who, for example, might not have had any experience of online learning prior to that.  So, those things like fostering trusting trust and building social relations is really, really interesting and important.

And one of the things I know I found particularly in spring of 2020 when we just had to make this instant switch to remote learning was that I realized the time that I would walk into the classroom and get everything set and all of the students would come in and then I would turn on the projector for my slides and all of that was a good transition time for me to cue me that now I’m starting to start the class.  

And then, all of a sudden, I’m in my little office at home with my laptop on my lap and I’m doing one thing and then the next minute class has started.  And I’m, “Oh, goodness, class has started.”  And I kind of missed having that ritual of going to another place and seeing the students.  And they probably missed coming in and sitting in a particular place with usually near a person, you know how students always sit in the same place after the first couple of days.  I just noticed how different that was and that I needed to create a little ritual for myself to realize, “Okay, now I’m in class, I’m not looking at a YouTube video, or I’m not searching online to buy something, or I’m not reading my email; I’m in class now.”  I just find that interesting.

Also something, you just said, Ruth, kind of sparked something in my head as it relates to rules of engagement in a classroom.  So, when you’re standing in the room you can tell if someone’s about to say something, or if it’s first-year engineers like I teach sometimes you can intimidate them into answering a question by looking directly at them for a long time.  Or, you know, as you start to learn students names you can say, “Oh, Natasha, do you have something to share?”  

But then when it’s online I know some of them don’t have their cameras on.  So, you’re just looking at a name on a plate, and a little plaque on Zoom or something, and it’s kind of hard to gauge when someone wants to say something so then, even for myself personally, I had to sit with a lot of awkward silences ‘cause I didn’t want to jump right back into something when a student was still processing.  And over time I’ve gotten used to just the comfortable silence for like 15-seconds or so, and if they realize I’m really not saying something then some brave soul will pipe up and say something.  But that’s harder to gauge when you’re in an online environment for sure.

Um-hmm, social cues.

Yes.  I’ve even noticed with the news anchors now doing their interviews remotely that even very seasoned journalists and interviewers will find that sometimes the person starts answering their question and they’re still asking the question because again, they don’t have that immediate cue of sitting a few feet from each other.

But, you know, I think that also brings an interesting point of digital natives, and kind of their modes of communication and obviously we kind of ignore the power of texting.  And I think, you know, online education kind of started with a text-based communication.  I think we’re sort of adding right now the layer of the visual that we can see somebody or maybe if they don’t have a camera then we cannot, but there’s still the different layer of interaction.  And I think it’s just interesting to understand who are these digital natives?  How do they interact with each other?  How do they convey those social cues in a sort of texting type of system?

So, I think it’s also this point of like we need to understand our students:  what do they do, what are their traits, and what is their communication like.


Yes, yes.  So, that’s why it’s so exciting to be able to have a space where you can talk with people and reflect on it which is what your podcast is doing.  

So, why did you want to start this podcast now?  What was your impetus for saying, okay I guess you have five episodes that are launched already, is that right?  

As of today, we have three and then two more coming very soon.

Okay.  So, very soon you’ll have five.  So, this is not hot off the presses but really pretty new.  So, why did you want to start the podcast now? 

It was hard not to.  I think both Nichole and myself we kind of had conversations and there was the sense of, “Oh, my God, big things are happening in the sense of an immediate shift to an online space.”  Because, you know, obviously online teaching/learning is not a new concept and it’s existed for quite a while.  But it’s not that everybody had to shift to that.  So, having that happening in real time really kind of I think was a big motivation to say, “Well we have to capture people’s thinking about what they’re going through right now because if we do it later it’s going to be different.  So, we want to understand what their real thinking for people who never taught online before and all of a sudden they have to teach engineering education courses right now.”  So, I think that was a big push.  

And quite obviously, you know this is something, Ruth, and I think I would credit you with that because we had those conversations a long time ago when you were suggesting this, you know, it’s interesting to understand how digital changes affect teaching.  And what does it mean for an instructor to be reflective about the changes that are happening and how do we teach in this new environment.  

So, I think it was sort of like a long conversation that was happening between all of us for quite some time, but it didn’t have this urgency.  And I think whatever happened this spring [2020] just made it really urgent and made it necessary and I think provided a big push for the launch of the podcast.   

And that reminds me that it would be useful also for the listeners to know a little bit more about your journey towards this topic, how you got interested, you’ve started to talk about that little bit but could you both expand upon it? 

I skipped a question.  I realize I skipped, “How did you get interested in this?”  So, I’ll give you time to pause and realize that I messed up here ((All:  Chuckling)) and just went to, “Why did you start it instead of how did you get interested?”


So, I can go.  I think while beyond the fact that Natasha and I were having this kind of offline conversations and it was just something I knew she was always passionate about having done her whole dissertation as it relates to online communication, so we started off with this idea of exploring online communication among engineering design teams.  So, that was I think late last year or earlier this year, so even before the shift that we had.  

So, before the shift happened, we were talking about how students communicate in an online environment.  And then in March [2020] everything went online and in one of our many conversations it just kind of came up to think about, you know, we were focused on the students but now let’s take a shift to look at how are the practitioners managing this shift?  

And personally, I do a lot of research as it relates to face-to-face learning environments, but I’ve always wanted to break into the online space primarily because there’s some things one takes for granted when you’re in a face-to-face environment.  There is something about the setting.  You walk in, as you were talking about earlier, Ruth, there’s a classroom, people know what happens in here, there’s some kind of transaction between the instructor and the student.  

And now when we’re in online environment where someone is sitting at their dining table, or someone is sitting in their living room with their laptop on laps.  So, the setting has changed but the expectation remains the same.  You are going to be engaged, there’s going to be learning happening here, and teaching happening here.  But we also need to take into consideration that one has to be, the word I keep using is, “intentional.”  Instructors have to be more intentional about how they design courses.  It’s not so much as to say, “Well, there are 26 chapters in the book and by God, we’re going to get through all of them by the end of the semester.”  

People’s bandwidth only goes so far, especially when they’re constantly being bombarded in an online screen and all of the other things that are going on.  So, I think a lot of instructors had to take stock of where they were in their class, even though I’m very much certain that some are still doing it exactly as they would’ve pre-March 2020.  But I think more people now are thinking about bandwidth and cognitive overload as it relates to themselves and their students, and therefore we wanted to create a space where we could help, not to say you have to do it this way, but to let practitioners know that there are resources available to them that they could use to make this a little less painful.

Yeah, and I think it’s really about sort of creating a community and creating this learning space I think first and foremost for ourselves.  You know, because you begin to realize there are people who have been working in online learning for quite some time, and they really understand the landscape of it, they really understand sort of the how it develops, and what you need to pay attention to, what are the affordances of online, what are the limitations?  

I think what’s really interesting to say is that engineering is very unique in the sense that conceptually it’s difficult.  So, there is this part that in a face-to-face environment conceptual learning is very difficult as you well know, it’s a big field of research.  And then when you move to it online, like Nicole was saying, intentionality and understanding, well how do you present this information online?  And sort of, what are the amounts of videos that you need to put, and what simulations, what virtual labs, etcetera, should go into the kind of conceptual space.  And I think, Ruth, you alluded to that in our conversation that at least this is something that we’re a little bit more familiar with. 

But then there’s also this aspect of teamwork that’s at the core of engineering especially relevant to first-year engineering courses as well as the Capstone Design courses, and that presents numerous challenges because, all of a sudden, you know, especially in a completely environment, virtual teamwork, you have, for example, for the first-year engineering students you have those new students who have to learn very quickly how do they communicate, how do they work productively in an online space.  And on top of that, you need to have instructors who understand what’s happening in the space and can help students learn the necessary skills and can moderate their meetings and help them to figure out their workflow process in that.  So, this is very challenging.

But I think those areas, like I said, the conceptual part and the teamwork make engineering very unique and also makes it very, very important to have efforts, research efforts, in understanding what it means to teach engineering online.   

And I have heard from others that for quite a while people said that engineering could not be taught online. ((general agreement among all)) And then all of a sudden, for many of the reasons that you just pointed out, Natasha, the difficulty of it, the teamwork, the feeling that you have to do more hands-on kinds of things.  And now we’re finding, “Wow, well yeah, you have to do it that way.”

And there are ways to do it.  You know, as we are kind of learning through our guests and their experiences of trying to figure out how you do that, and how do you facilitate teamwork.  So, yeah, that’s a very important area of research and I think there really needs to be highlighted more in our conversations.  

Ø  So, in the five interviews that you’ve done so far, what have you learned?  What would be some things that you think, are little teasers, for the prospective listeners to go ahead and subscribe and listen, what are some of the things that you’ve learned? 

Well one thing I’ve learned is I don’t like the sound of my voice.  ((All:  Chuckling))

I agree with that too.  It took me a while.  

You know, I think we’ve have had some really good conversations though.  For example, one of the things Natasha and I found that we were doing unintentionally was that as we were planning our guests it would seem we had one person talk about the theoretical side of things and then the other guest would talk about the same topic but in more practical terms.  

And Natasha can talk more about this later on, but primarily like we did yours first talking about CAP, the content assessment and pedagogy course you teach, and how made the switch from a face-to-face class to online and the things you had to think about making those changes.  And then we had Rohit, which is a recent Purdue grad, and he was talking about the technological content assessment and pedagogy framework that he’s devising.  

So, two words that kept coming up for us was this being flexible and adaptable.  To understanding that nothing is set in stone and you have to read and understand your students, but also the content you’re delivering and how that might change based on your context.

One thing that I learned from Rohit which really blew my mind was when we were talking about access, ‘cause access to technology, access to a stable internet is something that I think a lot of people didn’t think about when we said, “Oh, let’s put it all online,” assuming everybody has stable, reliable internet at home.  And he talked about how in India they have a certain amount of data, so gigabytes that they can use.  I still think about that conversation to this day where he said, “Then he, and his fellow instructors, had to be very intentional about how much time they planned their lessons in ‘cause students only had so much data.”  And so, it was forcing them to think about what is important and what definitely is not and how can we get the information to them knowing we can only make a video that is just so long ‘cause that’s all the data they will have.  And I think you mentioned it too, Ruth, about how many short snippets, what are the main points, and use those.  So, take a class that was three hours and make it into three 8-minute videos or something.  That was one of the things that has really stuck with me that I don’t know if I would’ve thought of before we started this podcast.  

I mean the biggest thing was like you really need to be reflective.  So, I thought we nailed that one in the title in all of that.  But I think, you know, as I remember Randy was saying it would be really good for the instructors to test things out because I think what is happening, especially right now in this kind of emergent situation is that, a lot of engineering instructors just never had practice with teaching online.  So, there is not this internal feel or awareness of what you should pay attention to.  

You know, I think this idea of this Community of Inquiry, for instance this area of paying attention to the social and cognitive and the teaching part of online space and how do you facilitate this collaborative learning?  So, I think that becomes important.  So, when you design a course you really have to understand how it’s going to show up in an online space.  And then I really come back to the idea of the trust, “Well, how do I develop trust?”  So, kind of the awareness of online space, the awareness of its affordance and limitations and just being kind of reflective about it I think is really important because it’s not about bringing what was done before in a face-to-face and just moving to online; it’s different.  And obviously it takes a lot of effort.  

So, it’s not easy.  And I think, again, a couple of the times we were hearing that it’s really…you know, shouldn’t be just an effort of an instructor, because there are a lot of pieces that go into that.  So, if instructors can get help from the teaching and learning centers and maybe their colleagues so they shouldn’t feel that they should carry all of this load just on themselves.  But there’s a lot of upfront work.  But I think again, just coming back to what Nicole said, flexibility, adaptability and being reflective about what the space requires is very important.

And that’s a very good thing to remember generally in life, right?  Be aware and reflective of what’s happening and then flexible and adaptable.  Yes, yes.

That’s a really hard one.  ((All:  Chuckling)) 

Yes, it is.  No, it’s not a quick and easy way.  Those things that seem simple are always incredibly hard.  

Well, I think we’ve done a good job of getting people interested in your podcast.  So, what remains though is if people want to listen to “Reflecting Teaching in the Digital Age,” how can they do it? 


So, they can directly listen to that at “ReflectiveTeaching.buzzsprout.com,” or they can go places like Amazon Podcasts, Amazon Music, Fortify, and type directly, “ReflectiveTeachingInADigitalAge,” so they should be able to find the podcast.

Or they can look us up on LinkedIn ‘cause the podcast is also on LinkedIn.  

Yes, absolutely.


So, I realize that I maybe have been saying the wrong thing.  Is it “Reflective Teaching in A Digital Age,” or “the” digital age? 

“A” digital age. 

“A”?  Okay, all right.  So, let me be clear.  So, to find it it’s “Reflectiveteaching,” one word, “.buzzsprout.com”  “Reflectiveteaching.buzzsprout.com” or “Reflective Teaching in a Digital Age” on Apple Podcast, Amazon Music, Spotify, or looking you up on LinkedIn.  Fabulous.  

Well, thank you so much and do you have any closing words for the listeners? 

Well, thank you for having us.  And, we hope, kind of going back to the beginning, that we can create a casual, interesting, lively space for conversation that could be useful to the engineering education community.  I think that’s one of our primary goals. 

And one of the things we ask all our guests to do towards the end of our conversation is to highlight key takeaways or little nuggets that people could try even without having to go through the whole process of reading the amazing literature that they all suggest, but you know, things that people can actively use that are very practical.  And so, we hope practitioners find those things useful.

And thank you, Ruth, for having us too. 

Well, as you know it is always a delight to be in your presence.  

You say the nicest things.  

It makes me feel really shy. 

It’s totally true.  And on that wonderful group laughter which we tend to have a lot of, I will end.  

Thank you. 

Thank you.

Research Briefs is produced by the School of Engineering Education at Purdue.  

Thank you to Patrick Vogt for composing our theme music.  The transcript of this podcast can be found by Googling “Purdue Engineering Education Podcast.”  And please check out my blog, RuthStreveler.Wordpress.com