2015 SyracuseCoE Symposium

The 2015 SyracuseCoE Symposium was held November 9-10th. The year’s symposium theme, “Clean Energy Frontiers: From Lab to Market,” highlighted innovations that optimize clean energy and its utilization in buildings, data centers, and neighborhood-scale districts.

The first day featured a student poster competition. Our research group had four posters on display that summarized recent findings from our green roof and urban runoff projects. Mallory Squier’s poster won second place in the PhD division. Congrats, Mallory!!

COE 15th Annual Symposium 2015 Clean Energy Frontiers From Lab To Market Poster Competition
COE 15th Annual Symposium 2015 Clean Energy Frontiers From Lab To Market Poster Competition
COE 15th Annual Symposium 2015 Clean Energy Frontiers From Lab To Market Poster Competition
Mallory Squier (center) receiving her award


All photo credits: Stephen Sartori, sourced from collage.syr.edu

Intro to Podcasts

For intense research and writing days, I prefer to work in silence (which can be rare in a graduate student office!) or with some quiet music. The rest of my day is often filled with podcasts. I wasn’t really aware of podcasts or what made them appealing until the series Serial was released. It created a new weekly podcast habit for me, and I quickly sought out many new podcasts to listen to during walks to school, afternoon runs, and weekend chores. I’ve found podcasts to be the easiest way to stay on top of the latest news and trends for both scientific research and general interest topics.

Podcasts are just like music styles in that each show has certain environments when it’s best suited, and it can take time to figure out what works with your personal tastes. I tend toward weekly shows that have new guest interviews and topics in each episode. Below are some of my favorite podcasts that I’d recommend trying out if you’re new to podcasts. I will update this post from time to time with additional recommendations. Feel free to comment on your favorites as well!

Favorite podcast app: Pocket Casts

Weekly lineup:

Science Friday –  This podcast feels like catching the highlights of groundbreaking science seminars in an easily digestible format. Most Science Friday episodes cover topics that are accessible and interesting to general audiences, though a predilection for science news helps make this one enjoyable.

Useful Science – Ever wish you could easily access and scrutinize the research findings discussed on a science podcast? Not only do the creators of Useful Science make that possible, but the hosts of each episode break down and examine the methods, conclusions, and limitations of various studies. Topics are geared toward those that can be applied in everyday life.

Intelligence Squared Debates – I’ve always been one to play the devil’s advocate, so listening to this podcast with experts crafting arguments on contentious issues always holds my attention. The episodes are recorded live and guests attempt to sway an audience’s opinion.

TED Radio Hour – Each week, host Guy Raz weaves together snippets of TED talks and interviews with enthusiastic curiosity under a cohesive theme for each episode. If you’re a fan of TED talks, this is definitely one to check out.

Freakonomics Radio – The best selling book has led to an extremely popular podcast. The show covers a range of social and economic topics, though lately many episodes seem to be related to crime prevention and education.

Planet Money: This one is much shorter than some of the others (~15 min), so it’s an easy one to fit in each week. The subject matter and show format are quite similar to Freakonomics.

Old standbys:

Fresh Air and This American Life: Classic NPR podcasts that delve into personal stories through interviews and storytelling.

New to the mix:

Two podcasts I recently picked up from a friend who listens to podcasts during her research:

Awesome Etiquette – Weekly tips on how to handle just about every odd or awkward social situation? Yes, please!

Love + Radio – Some stories in this show are uplifting, while others are heartbreaking. Nevertheless, I look forward to new episodes each week.

Helping Students Overcome Test Anxiety

Though the fall semester is just beginning, my mind is already focused on midterms and final exams. More specifically, I am reflecting on past students’ fears and frustrations about tests. Students of all ages experience test anxiety, and many factors can influence how they develop anxiety about tests and problem solving in general. A recent study of first- and second-graders found that the level parents’ anxiety about math problems directly influences the levels measured in their children. A 2010 study found that math-anxious elementary schoolteachers were a significant factor in children’s level of math anxiety, particularly for young girls.

What may begin as occasional nervousness at a young age can snowball into a blinding fear of exams. As a teaching assistant, I’ve heard from undergraduate and graduate students who felt prepared for an exam, but simply “choked” or “blanked” on certain questions or the entire test. Unfortunately, several studies have found test anxiety to be a negative predictor of academic performance.

Dr. Sian Beilock,  a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, wrote the 2010 book Choke, describing various strategies on how to succeed in high pressure situations. Beilock makes the distinction between so-called “working memory,” or conscious intellectual thought and analysis, and “thinking outside the box,” which can be understood as a more instinctual reaction to a problem. Her books reveals that in high pressure situations such as exams, those who rely heavily on working memory get into trouble, as too much conscious thought can inhibit and disrupt performance rather than enhance it.

How can we look ahead to try and prevent some of these anxieties from holding back students’ academic performance? Beilock coauthored a 2014 column in American Educator with Dr. Daniel Willingham on math anxiety. Some of the strategies they suggest  for teachers to help their students include:

  • Ensure fundamental skills. Confidence in basic skills and concepts will lead to confidence of more difficult problems later on.
  • Focus on how to teach math concepts. Courses that focus on how to learn math concepts have been found to be more effective at reducing anxiety than courses that only seek to reinforce math concepts.
  • Changing the assignment (e.g., reduce time pressure)
  • A writing exercise on student emotions regarding an upcoming exam. Students that write about their emotions may find a sense of relief from their test anxiety.
  • Think carefully about what to say when students struggle. Acknowledge the challenging nature of the work and a student’s struggles, but express confidence that they are capable of overcoming their difficulties.

While the column is geared toward K-12 math teachers, some of these strategies may prove useful for engineering professors as well. For most undergraduate students, applied engineering problems are as novel as multiplication tables are for elementary school students. Taking the time to implement some of these strategies into courses early on may help prevent some students’ test anxieties from forming.

EESD 2015 and ASEE 2015

This June I presented at two conferences: The Seventh International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) and the 122nd ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition.

EESD15 took place in Vancouver, Canada, which marks the first time that the conference was held in North America. The four day conference featured workshops, sessions and keynote addressing on various themes related to sustainable development and engineering education, with an overarching theme of developing a “T-shaped” engineer. On Tuesday, I presented a paper with co-authors Mallory Squier and Dr. Cliff Davidson, entitled “Development of a Case-Based Teaching Module to Improve Student Understanding of Stakeholder Engagement Processes within Engineering Systems Design.

From Dr. Cynthia Atman’s keynote talk

One of the highlights of the conference was Dr. Cynthia Atman’s keynote talk on design thinking in engineering. It was wonderful to see engineers’ design processes in creative visual and auditory representations.


Indigenous homes and totem poles

One of the most interesting aspects of the program was the number of opportunities we had to learn about the indigenous peoples of the area, in particular the Musqueam people. A reception held at he Museum of Anthropology allowed us to explore beautiful collections of indigenous art and cultural artifacts.

This year the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference and Exposition moved to Seattle, WA. I have always wanted to explore Seattle and very much enjoyed the opportunity to explore the food and coffee scene in my free time.

Seattle skyline from Kerry Park

On Tuesday, I presented a paper with co-authors Dr. Cliff Davidson, Dr. Sharon Dotger and Meredith Sullivan, entitled “Development and Pilot Test of the Rate and Accumulation Concept Inventory.” This paper presented a preliminary validity and reliability analysis of the RACI and results of a pre- and post-test administration. Tuesday also featured an ASEE presentation for another Syracuse University PhD student. Ryan Smith presented the results of a course structure change, entitled “Developing T-Shaped Professional Engineers Through an Advance Energy System Course.”

At the Annual Student Dinner, the Syracuse University Student Chapter was recognized as a new official chapter. I am looking forward to working with other passionate graduate students within Student Division to help make our chapter a success.

The remainder of the conference was filled with meetings, paper sessions, and networking. Overall, both EESD15 and ASEE15 were fantastic conferences. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to engage with other engineering education researchers and professionals and to hear about some of the phenomenal engineering education work being completed around the world.

My time in Vancouver and Seattle was short, but I made the most of it by exploring the downtown areas and hiking trails that were a short bus ride away. I also came across plenty of green infrastructure in both cities, along with many other amazing urban sustainability initiatives. Hopefully I will have future opportunities to visit again to do some more exploring, and maybe next time I’ll travel via a plane fueled by sustainable fuels!

View from Crowne Mountain, North Vancouver
Hiking the Grouse Grind


Green infrastructure at UBC


Nonacademic Skills and the Many Names the Go By

In a recent education piece, NPR writer Anya Kamenetz provides an overview of the flashy terms and buzzwords that keep popping up in education research:

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Character
  • Grit
  • Growth Mindset
  • Non-cognitive Traits and Habits
  • Social and Emotional Skills
  • Soft Skills

These terms are commonly used to describe key traits of success, whether that’s in school, the workplace, or other life pursuits. I have been interested in the idea of applying the growth mindset idea to educational development, and recently came across the idea of using grit as a potential measure for academic success.

While the article provides a sort of “first flush” attempt at defining these terms, taking the time to develop clear definitions is a critical step for researchers and policy makers. It’s clear that many of these terms are interrelated and overlap, so much so that researchers are likely studying similar phenomena with different semantics. Another issue with the popularity of various terms is the potential for backlash. For instance, the idea of grit as a measure of success caught on quickly before it had time to be studied in rigorous detail. Thus, there have been some misunderstandings about whether or not it can be used as a reliable measure for success, and the context in which studying grit may lead to undesirable narratives. Nevertheless, the increasing interest in the importance of nonacademic skills and traits is a pivotal development in education research that shows no signs of slowing any time soon.


STGlobal Conference 2015

From April 10-11th, I attended the STGlobal annual conference in Washington, DC. STGlobal Consortium is an international, interdisciplinary organization compromised of leading graduate programs in science and technology policy (STP) and science and technology studies (STS). The annual conference is geared towards PhD students in STP and STS and is organized in collaboration with STGlobal’s mission partners, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The National Academies. The conference is unique in that it brings together graduate students in the traditionally fragmented community of scholars working in S&T policy and social research.

National Academy of Sciences
American Association for the Advancement of Science

The conference was a great opportunity for me to engage with PhD students from other institutions to learn about their research methods and findings. I presented on the methods I am using to characterize the factors that influence the adoption of green infrastructure in the US. There also were several professional development panels and keynotes talks. For instance, Dr. David Hess of Vanderbilt University delivered a keynote talk that focused on recent findings related to sustainable technology transitions that I found particularly interesting.

Dr. David Hess on Sustainable Technology Transitions

I would highly recommend this conference to PhD students that are integrating STS and STP aspects into their research questions. Though most students were not applying STS and STP methods to environmental systems, I found it useful to compare their methods against those I used in my project. It was also nice to walk around DC during the spring cherry blossom season!

White House during DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival