S4E33: Engineering Education Research Briefs with Dr. Ruth Streveler

Event Date: April 12, 2021
Chanel Beebe is an artist, writer, social entrepreneur, engineer, and Doctoral Candidate in the School Engineering Education at Purdue. Join host Dr. Ruth Streveler as Chanel shares her journey existing and thriving in various areas of expertise and how she uncovers her contributions to Engineering Education and beyond!


Episode Transcript

Ø  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. 

My guest today is Chanel Beebe, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Engineering at Purdue and a deeply interdisciplinary thinker and practitioner.

I first met Chanel when she entered the Ph.D. program at Purdue in 2015.  She’s been a student in three classes that I teach, and I am also a member of her dissertation committee.  

I have been lucky enough to see Chanel’s abstract paintings and to hear her perform her poetry and be witness to her courageous self-expression.  And that has been an inspiration to me.  She has a fascinating story to tell about her art, poetry and research that she has agreed to share with us today.  

Chanel and I both agreed that her story really is very expansive.  And we’re actually planning two podcasts with her; this is the first one.  You’ll be finding out more about the second one soon.

Chanel, thanks so much for being on Research Briefs.  I’m really excited about sharing your story with people.

v Chanel Beebe:  Thank you so much for having me.  It’s an honor to be here, and an honor to be able to talk about myself and my work in such a complete way.  I’m very excited to share with you today.  

Ø  You’re welcome.  Can you begin by telling the listeners a bit about your background and some of your areas of expertise? 

v Yes.  Well, my identities are ever evolving.  I currently identify as an African-American Two-Spirited Woman from Detroit.  Detroit is on Waawiyatanong Land and I have ancestors from a Choctaw Tribe in Mississippi.  So, I also identify as indigenous.  I didn’t really investigate that part of my background deeply until 2017 and 2018.  So, that was a fairly new area to me that I’m exploring.

In terms of my areas of expertise, I am very, very passionate about social problem solving.  I’m also a researcher, an artist, a writer, an entrepreneur, an activist; so, there are a lot of things going on.   

Ø  And you know on this program, we speak with researchers.  But one of the things I was so interested in were these other parts of your identity and really being able to give the listeners a fuller picture of what the life of a researcher is.  And that you don’t really have to be “a researcher.”  But there’s many other parts.  And I think you do interweave those in a really fascinating way.  

I do want to mention Detroit because that’s where we’re talking to you from.  And you grew up in Detroit, right?  And have a really, I think a very strong connection to that city as well.

v    Yeah.  I think Detroit was the first place that I really started to understand the process of becoming any type of practitioners of profession or artist.  There are so many different communities here that have allowed me to develop the things I feel like doing personally with the community.  And we’ll probably have to talk about that more in the second podcast.  

But Detroit is just a part of my heart.  My journey with becoming an engineer, an artist, and a poet, all of those kind of came together in this very slow interconnected timeline.  

I was a very creative and school-smart kind of kid.  So, a lot of these things came naturally.  I’ve been painting and writing since I was small.  My mom actually said that she used to keep pen and paper for me whenever we would go on errands and that would keep me pretty busy.

In school I loved almost everything.  I’m also an only child, so school was like the place where things were happening and then I would go home and entertain myself.  But I loved art, math and I loved English and science.  And I was always in like Gifted and Talented schools.

My mom did an amazing job of keeping me pretty busy as well.  I think, you know, both because of her passion and because of all the city has to offer I was always in some sort of weekend or summer program.  And I wasn’t introduced into engineering until middle school.  At that point, I was in a lot of creative and like writing summer programs.  But once I found engineering, I was like I would much rather build things than have to read a book every week to go have this conversation.  So, that’s kind of when I first heard about engineering.  

And then when I got to high school, my focus expanded a little bit to include entrepreneurship.  I started a school store with a class I was in in high school.  So, on the weekends I was doing all these engineering programs and then during school I was doing entrepreneurship.  But as I learned more about engineering, I eventually decided to be an industrial engineer because it allowed me to blend my passion for business and engineering.  It kind of seemed like it gave me the best of both worlds.  

So, after high school I went to the University of Michigan for industrial engineering.  And at that point I was still writing and painting pretty leisurely.  And I developed this passion for sociology as well.  I actually took twice as many humanities credits as I needed for my engineering degree.  And that kind of helped me develop an interest for academic things outside of engineering.  And I didn’t quite see what research was, but it piqued my interest into the fact that there are these social issues and these very historical things that are happening that are affecting everybody, and those things weren’t being discussed in my engineering classes.  So, I really, really loved the sociology I was able to study there.

Ø  So, sometimes I have heard you refer to yourself as a social entrepreneur.  And I would see that does that tie in with your love of sociology?  

v It took a while for me to see the social side of my entrepreneurship.  I think initially I just understood the business implications of entrepreneurship.  Like in high school, as much as I recognized that the store we started became a place for social interactions and definitely like one of the hallmarks of my memories of high school, initially I wasn‘t completely sure about what my entrepreneurship meant.

My father was an entrepreneur.  I come from like four generations of entrepreneurs, so I knew it was possible.  I knew it was something that people did.  I didn’t really have a lot of experience with people who did entrepreneurship for some type of social impact.  Often it was more so the space of trying to make money, trying to solve a need, and additionally trying to take care of yourself.  

It was kind of similar with the research.  Like I never really understood what research was, especially not in undergrad.

Ø  So, can you say then more about the research?  It seems like that was something that developed then a little later. 

v Yeah.  I never really intended to be a researcher.  When I went to the University of Michigan, I was awarded the Gates Millenium Scholarship.  And that scholarship came with graduate funding.  So, because of that scholarship I knew grad school was an option.  But I didn’t know much about it other than the few chemistry labs that I had, and I didn’t really enjoy those.  I didn’t like the pressure of having to do things in this very specific way.  

So, I didn’t really know how to conceptualize myself as a researcher outside of a lab coat.  I did enjoy the science part of it.  Like I really loved my materials science class mostly because of the structures and forms that had a little bit of artistic lens.  But honestly, most of the science classes that I loved I didn’t do really well in.  So, I didn’t really think that traditional science or technical roots really made sense for me.  

But I did know that I really liked teaching.  I did a lot of extracurricular work while I was at the University of Michigan.  And in my head, I was kind of like, “Okay, I like teaching.  I’m an engineer.  So, I can probably teach engineers.”  And at that point I was more so thinking about teaching engineers in industry.  So, I think up until like my senior year of undergrad I was thinking about going to grad school for an engineering management degree because I thought that that would help me to train people in industry. 

And then in my last semester at Michigan, I took a class called “Introduction to the Design Process,” with Shanna Daly.  And she had graduated from Purdue’s Engineering Education program, and that was the first class that I ever took where I felt like the teacher could really see and anticipate how I was responding to the material.  And I had personally never experienced that.  Like a lot of the classes I went through, especially in engineering, it was more about your ability to persist through the coursework as opposed to the coursework’s ability to match what you’re going through.

And I had my own ideas about how engineering could be taught significantly better.  But Shanna opened me up to this world of research that said exactly what I was thinking.  And I was thrilled about the idea.  But I was more thrilled about the practical applications of it than the actual research itself.  And I wasn’t entirely sure what that would like.  You know, I was interested in how could this inform how I could teach; how could this inform the different types of spaces I could teach?  But I didn’t know much about it.  Like the class was great, interacting with Shanna was great, but I think after that class my plan was still to go on and get the Master’s in Engineering Management and then to possibly apply for a Ph.D. in Engineering Education at Purdue afterwards.

So, when I graduated from Michigan in 2014, I actually went to Duke for a Master’s in Engineering Management.  I actually had to change my major the Friday before classes started because my scholarship didn’t support professional degrees and they couldn’t be convinced that Engineering Management was not the same as an MBA for engineers.  So, that was very stressful.  

And at the time, I knew I wasn’t necessarily interested in doing more industrial engineering.  But I had already moved, and I was already down there.  So, I switched my major to Environmental Engineering ‘cause I did care about the environment.  And that went okay.  I found an advisor and I was doing okay, but as I was going through the coursework, I was having the same kind of issues I was having in the undergrad.  And I was noticing that the problems I had with what I was doing were the same problems that I had with Engineering Education in general from my undergrad experience.  And I was struggling a lot with my mental health and a lot of things were going on.  So, I decided to drop out from that program, and I completed my application for Purdue before I moved back home.  And my plan was to move back home, stay there for nine months, and then start my Ph.D. program.

But then at that point, I still didn’t know much about what it meant to be a researcher.  I just had a taste of what graduate level thinking was like and I was like, “Okay, well if I’m going to do this, it needs to be for something that I’m really interested in.”  And I still barely really understood what that was like.  

Ø  So, what was happening with your art and poetry at this time?    

v Well, my art had skyrocketed.  Throughout my undergrad, I had started using art to give my brain a break.  I hadn’t really started doing art shows, but I was sharing my artwork with my friends.  And when I moved back to Detroit, and I had that very small timeframe, that’s when I was really able to start thinking deeply about what I was interested in both as a researcher but also as a creative.  

You know, I think I had nine months before I started my grad program and I really decided to invest in my creativity at that point.  The job that I chose gave me a little bit of free time.  Because I was at home living with my mom, I didn’t have to pay rent.  So, I took that as a chance to take a job that maybe I couldn’t take if I had to pay rent but was still interesting to me.  And that gave me all kind of time in the world, and I decided to explore the things that were interesting to me.  And poetry was one of them.  

As much as I had been painting in undergrad, and sharing my paintings with my friends, my poetry was never something that I shared that deeply.  So, when I got back to Detroit, I really started going to open mics and going to poetry readings.  And I actually found out that it was cheaper to perform poetry than to just watch.  So, that’s why I started performing.  And I was pretty good at it.  I connected with a network of poets in Detroit called, “The Detroit Poetry Society,” and that was just like a gateway to different types of open mics, different types of workshops.  And I got really good.

So, in the time between leaving Duke and going to Purdue I really let myself indulge in my creative interests.  I performed my first poetry feature, I had my artwork featured in my first art show, I self-published my first chat book, I even curated my first art show before I left to go to Purdue.  And it was kind of perfect.

That creativity plus the job that I chose which was actually teaching math at a non-profit this these very interesting pedagogies.  And by the time it was time to go to Purdue my conceptions of why I was going to Purdue had changed drastically.  My job had really given me insight into what education looks like in the schools, and the different problems associated with that.  So, I was a lot more clear about what I wanted to do with the Engineering Education, but I still didn’t really know what I was getting into for real.  

And once I started at Purdue it was actually a little painful because I had this new like freshly, invigorating, creative sense; this new fresh set of skills around teaching, around engaging with my community.  And what I was learning at Purdue was not really helping me engage with them.  So, I felt pretty distant from my communities and even kind of distant from the issues that really mattered to me.  So, that was a hard kind of time.

Ø  It’s interesting that that’s about the time when I first met you; you were in a class called Foundations that I was the Grad Chair at the time, so I was teaching that class.  And you did a good job, Chanel, of hiding any struggles because the thing that I really remember about you is being in that class and telling folks something about a poem you had written and that you were going to perform it.  And you performed it with such incredible confidence.  And that still strikes me, I guess, as my strongest early memory of you, of like, “Wow, here’s a person that not only expresses herself beautifully but has the confidence just to share it.”  

v Yeah, and I was fresh out of Detroit at the time.  And I had so much experience with performing at open mics and performing in places where people didn’t necessarily want to hear you.  So, to be in a space where people were listening it was like a piece of cake.  And maybe we could talk about this more in the next podcast.  But I think as you move through the practitioners’ space you are able to develop some stuff that you can’t shake.  And when I got to Purdue, the poetry was pretty solid; like I had that, I knew I could do that, I knew I could speak that way.  

Ø  Well, it was solid.  And when I was hearing the beautiful poetry of Amanda Gorman this past January at President Biden’s Inauguration, it’s like she reminded me of you with just this wonderful young woman who is so incredibly eloquent and confident and, whoa, it gives one faith in the world.    

v Oh, that’s beautiful, beautiful.  

Ø  So, Chanel, you mentioned that you really felt, as you were beginning your journey as a researcher, as Ph.D. student at Purdue, that you felt really distant from some of the things that brought you to research. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you processed that and handled that?  Again, from my vantage point I didn’t see a person struggling; but of course, that often happens where we’re really good at hiding our struggles from the world.  Tell us a bit more about that.

v I think I leaned on the skills I had developed in earlier parts of my life and I knew that if I wasn’t feeling relevant, or like I belonged to my school, there was probably a community of people somewhere around that I would feel a little bit more connected to.

I also started going to therapy my first semester of grad school.  I had gone to therapy before both at Duke and at the University of Michigan, but I had really struggled trying to find a therapist that really understood me.  So, by the time I got to Purdue, I knew how to have the first conversation to really see how this therapy relationship can work with me.  So, that was very healing just to have that kind of constant space.  And through talking to this therapist, I was able to realize that a lot of what I missed was the creativity, was the culture. 

So, I got really active on campus.  I got involved with Purdue’s Black Cultural Center and they had these amazing performing arts ensembles.  And one of them was poetry.  And I was like, “Oh yes, I have found it.  I am home.  I am okay.”  And to this day, I don’t think I would’ve persisted like I did in my grad program were it not for the Black Cultural Center.  

I think as much as my department was supportive, the campus life and even the city life, you know, when I started at Purdue, this was right before Trump got elected.  And there were a lot of jokes about if he got elected and I remember like, “Y’all don’t understand how not funny that would be,” you know.  But at the Black Cultural Center I was able to have conversations with people who were also afraid and also trying to heal and trying to use their art and their scholarship to really do something.  

And at that point, because I wasn’t really sure about what it meant to be a researcher, I wasn’t deeply interested in publishing in scholarly journals because in my mind, the people that I cared about didn’t read those journals.  And if anything, I felt like I was kind of missing out on opportunities to teach and engage with people directly.

And at a certain point, I think a friend of me gifted me, “chanelbeebe.com” as a gift; I think it was a Christmas gift.  And the more I was uploading my artwork and my poetry and my other projects, I realized that what I was doing was a lot easier to understand as a design firm, or as something bigger than me.  Trying to introduce myself as Chanel the Engineering Education who does poetry and artwork got kind of confusing.

So, with my high school experience of starting a store, I started to reflect on what products and services might I be interested in offering specifically to the communities that I didn’t necessarily feel like my research might meet.  As my classes and research assistantships happened, I started to understand a little bit better the ecosystem of research and like the different ways that you could impact change, different ways that you can be involved.  And I realized that if I wasn’t building expertise early, I wouldn’t really be able to fund or complete the stuff I wanted to do once I graduated.

So, I decided to apply for my own funding so I could design my own dissertation study.  And I started to think of ways to practice what I was passionate about in communities that I already had access to; so not trying to wait for some type of institutional opportunity, but really trying to create the opportunities for myself.  

So, in 2017, which I think was the second year of my Ph.D., I started my company, Beebe Arts LLC.  I started it as a research and design firm focused on social and educational equity.  And in the interim, I had developed this program called the “Cultural Hackathon,” in collaboration with some of my Indiana connections and communities.  And I started doing workshops around design thinking.  And that was really when I was like, “Okay, this research thing actually might work for what I’m trying to do.”  I can see the thinking that I’m doing impacting the communities that I’m in.  I’m developing my own communities of practice as it relates to that type of design thinking and social settings.  So, that was when I really started to see it.  It was like entrepreneurship was like, “Okay, I could see how the research could be helpful now.”  

Ø  So, Chanel, it sounds like you were really beginning to weave in the entrepreneurial side of your identity into your research.  Do you want to say more about that and how the entrepreneurship informed the research itself?

v Yeah.  So, after about a year of working in my communities with my company, I was getting paid to develop and deliver week-long workshops in Detroit.  I also was doing a lot of relevant programming in different places.  And those experiences were transformation.  The success of those programs, and even having the chance to walk other people through a process of solving social problems that matter for them, that really shifted my research focus.  I got really interested in socially-engaged design settings and the space between institutions and their stakeholders.  And as I developed my dissertation study, I started thinking about what life would be like after I graduate.  

And though I loved my consulting work, a lot of what I was enjoying about it was that I wasn’t necessarily concerned about its ability to pay my rent; but I had the flexibility of just kind of doing it as a practice.  And though I loved the research, I knew there was a real-world edge to that passion and that I needed it to be grounded in some context I cared about.

So, as I was pondering these things, I was also getting really involved in activism.  I had started being active on Michigan’s campus but as an undergrad it’s hard to manage your energy and actually figure out what system you’re in.  So, I got really involved in some of the protests that were happening on campus.

And that level of involvement became really taxing to both my mental and physical health.  Between teaching, performing, protesting, and participating in research meetings I actually lost a few octaves of my voice during my first two years at Purdue, which I don’t really talk about much because it was a pretty rough time.  But that energy shift caused me to slow down and get serious about how each of the things I was involved in was nourishing me and my ability to reach my goals.  As I was able to see yes, I’m passionate about these things, but they take energy.  What is it really that is helping me?  

So, I slowed down my performances and started focusing on marketing my artwork and marketing the poetry that I had already made.  And I started working at the Black Cultural Center as the Scholar-Resident for one of their ensembles that was focused on Black Thought.  And that was really enjoyable because it gave me a low-stakes way to have a research group which I had never really conceived of before.  But helping those students develop research projects about social issues that mattered to them, that really piqued my interest in becoming a faculty member. 

So, again, the social engagements of, “Okay, this will be cool.  I actually could see how that will work in my research, or how that could work as a faculty member, or how that could work down these other timelines.”  So, it was a really interesting space between the activism, entrepreneurship, and the engagement that kept reinvigorating and helping me to understand actually this research part is useful.  As much as it feels like you might be wasting your time, or you’re doing stuff that people will never see, I was actually seeing it.  I was able to see how the skills that I was developing was helping me to help other people develop those skills.  And I was able to see how the skills that I came with were allowing me to take my learning to a whole other level.  So, that was super-super transformational, I think.  Had I not been active on campus or doing the stuff I was doing with my company, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to maintain the relevance of what I was doing as a Ph.D. student.

Ø  So, shall we talk now about your life now that’s you’re back home in Detroit and how your perspective helped heal you and impact you?

v The decision to move back to Detroit was a very early one; I want to say at least within my first six months of living in Indiana I was like, I can’t be here this whole time.  I don’t know how long this Ph.D. is going to take me, but I know as soon as I can move, I’m going to move.  

After I defended my Prelim for my Ph.D., I started networking with my Engineering Education community trying to really think about, “Okay, I’m getting close to graduating, what does this life look like?”  And I got some advice that it might be useful for me to have a Master’s degree in some engineering discipline because I didn’t get that Master’s at Duke.  So, I started thinking about that and kind of by happenstance, I was also developing some interest in this concept of systems thinking which had recently become a whole focus in Purdue’s Industrial Engineering Department.  

So, I talked to my advisor and developed an extension of my Ph.D. study that allowed me to look at systems thinking in those spaces.  So, in 2018 I started my Master’s program and I had to take an additional year of coursework.  And that was actually really hard for me.  As much as I wanted to unpack systems thinking, I wanted to think about myself as an industrial engineer, or as a researcher in industrial engineering, I did not want to be in Indiana for another year.  And I had to have all kinds of conversations to make that okay.  

So, in that last year at Purdue, on campus, I took the classes that were required, but I started writing a book of artwork, stories, and poems, and I called it “Proof.”  And I want to say that was 2018; whatever was happening with our presidential administration, it made me feel like if I didn’t document who I was and that I existed as this very complicated person, that possibly nobody would ever hear about me.  So, writing that book I think allowed me to showcase my art and my poetry and boosted my confidence as an artist and as a poet.  And I think I published it in March of 2019, and I hosted some open mics in Lafayette and in Detroit.  And then in the summer of 2019 I was finally able to move back to Detroit.  And that was just deeply cathartic, after four years of living in Indiana and hoping I would be able to make some impact in the communities back home, I was rejuvenated when I moved back to Detroit.  It was just a completely new world for me, I think.  

Ø  So, what’s next for you? 

v Since being back in Detroit I’ve been able to connect with other communities of practices.  When I was here before, I had a deep poetry community of practice.  And this time I’ve been able to connect with the artistic community of practice.  I’ve still been writing poetry; but I’m mostly been focusing on art shows and how to get deeper into understanding the business of art and the practice of art.  

I also got really interested in translating my dissertation and thesis work to stuff that was useful or interesting to the people who weren’t in engineering education.  And when that pandemic hit in March, my consulting slowed down a lot, so I had all this extra time to get creative.  And I dabbled a little bit back into poetry; I performed a couple of virtual poetry shows.  But I got really interested in digital and print media.  And that’s kind of been where I’ve been.

On Juneteenth of 2020, I released the first issue of a quarterly print and online magazine that we call, “Bitten.”  And that was no easy feat.  It required a lot of collaboration between my creative networks in Detroit and Indiana.  The major writers were me and some of my Detroit community, but the artists that were helping me make it beautiful, were some of the people that I met in my poetry group in Indiana.  So, it was interesting trying to bridge those two communities and make something that was interesting.  

The start of that magazine gave me a space to discuss issues that matter to me.  And gave me a space to advertise the stuff that I was doing in my company.  But also, to showcase my artwork and poetry and the artwork and poetry of people that I had built relationships with.  So, the work on the magazine has pushed my research goals even further.  Now I have this passion for public access to knowledge and resources.  And it’s really interesting because now I’m not just thinking about defending my thesis and defending my dissertation, but I’m thinking about what type of presentations or conversations can I do that will make my community aware of my research and aware of what I’ve done and what’s useful.  

So, I feel like I now have a more legible passion for these things.  I also have a more legible passion for design thinking and learning.  And I’m looking forward to doing some more teaching and research on the space between institutions and stakeholders.  

In terms of my company, the entrepreneurship just continues to evolve.  So, between the magazine, and I’m also rolling out a new version of the Cultural Hackathon called the “Gnosis Method.”  So, it feels like the sky the starting point for the company; like it’s not even the limit, that’s just kind of the next step is to go to the sky and then see what happens.  

It’s a lot.  Consulting, getting ready for possibly a faculty role, I’ve also developed some interest in environmental justice and started working with a solar energy company here.  And we’re thinking about doing a non-profit around the magazine which would allow to do a little bit more public programming.  So, everything is next.

Ø  Well, that’s one of the things that’s so incredibly inspiring about you, Chanel, is that you certainly do not lack for energy and creativity.  

And so, if people want to investigate some of your work is having them look at Chanelbeebe.com is that more of like a portal to your magazine and other things?

v Yes.  So, if you go to Chanelbeebe.com you’ll find more about me in general, my artwork and poetry is on there.  It also links you to the company.  You can go to BeebeArts.com and hear more about the company.  And it links you to the magazine as well and that is Bittenmag.com.

I also have Linkedin.  Our Facebook pages are pretty active; we’re like constantly doing conversations for the magazine and constantly promotion different things.  

Ø  Fabulous, fabulous.  As folks, I think can see, that there is just incredible richness to your life.  And that you are very, very thoughtful and a systems thinker.  And so, what we want to do in our second podcast with you is explore some of those interconnections and some more of the concepts I think that you’ve developed around that. 

v I would love to.  I think there’s a lot of stuff that we kind of just barely hit on.  So, I’d love to talk more about thinking about these different skills and communities as areas that can be traversed in different ways.  

Ø  I do want to end this particular episode, even though we’ve given people a teaser about the next time.  I always do ask folks what advise they have, or things that they want to leave the audience with.  So, I want to give you that opportunity as well.

v Hmm.  I think the major piece of advice I would give is that the difference between you and the people you idolize is practice and your attitude.  So, if you don’t have a fixed mindset and you let yourself continue to practice and engage in these spaces, you’ll find yourself pretty good at things over time. And I think that that’s something that it took me a while to understand.  I spent a lot of time feeling insecure about how good I was at these different things.  But over time, you find that your level of expertise will travel with you as long as you continue engaging it and practicing.  That would be my advice:  practice whatever you don’t feel secure about, keep trying.  

Ø  Wonderful, wonderful advice.  

v Thank you so much for having me.  I look forward to our next episode.    

Ø  Yes, me too! 

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