Education/English Professor Sharon Fellows Found Her Niche — in Engineering
Sharon Fellows, assistant director of the Engineering Design Division, isn’t an engineer at all. A former English professor with a degree in curriculum design, Fellows 15 years ago answered the call for help from the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“Graduates had the engineering content,” says Sharon Fellows, “but, they also needed those other skills that are so important: the ability to read, to write, to do research and communicate ideas. In the end, students learn how to write reports, put presentations together and work on teams.”
Over the course of a year, Fellows developed a communications program that would ensure a solid foundation for all freshmen engineering students. “They’re ours for one year,” says Fellows, so, she and her colleagues waste no time.
First-semester freshmen jump into a hands-on project; their goal: to repurpose an everyday object into a working piece of equipment. VCRs have turned into automatic cat feeders. Cracker boxes have become guitar amps. And, computer mice have been transformed into robotic cat toys.
This project, in conjunction with a reverse-engineering project, develops the engineering and communication skills first-year students need to prepare for future years. First, they disassemble a household appliance, like a coffee grinder, in a structured, logical way. Next, they analyze how it works and how the parts work together. The next step is to identify three areas where the appliance could be modified or improved and brainstorm and prepare solutions. “They learn how to do a bill of materials, write directions and problem statements, create flow charts and provide detailed analysis and solutions,” says Fellows.
In the second semester, students work on a team based Global Issues Project. In this project students have the opportunity to learn about international global issues. In teams, they attach themselves to a World Bank actual project and select an engineering/scientific problem to work on. This project not only hones their engineering skills, but offers extensive opportunities to improve their critical thinking skills, i.e. reading, research and writing.
When the call for help first came, Fellows admits she was skeptical. “I thought, ‘no, this isn’t for me.’” But she has a passion for the program. “I fell in love with the students and the curriculum, and the whole challenge of it,” says Fellows. And, 15 years later, this English professor plans to stay in the engineering world.