Micro-focusing an Argon-ion laser onto a graphene sample

Interdisciplinary team works to engineer success

A professor works with a group of students in a physics classroom. The students are writing on a whiteboard and using a calculator.
If an intervention being developed by an interdisciplinary team at Miami University proves effective, more engineering students may pass early physics courses, like this one taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Dilupama Divaratne.

According to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly half of students who begin pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math – the so-called STEM fields – drop out of that pipeline before earning a degree.

Among several factors the NCES cites is “performing poorly in STEM classes relative to non-STEM classes.” As a physics instructor at Miami University, Jennifer Blue has seen this firsthand.

Blue reports that while a majority of introductory engineering students at Miami pass their first-year physics classes, about 20% earn a “D,” “F,” or “W.”

“It makes us so sad when people fail our classes,” the associate professor says.

In part, that sorrow stems from the knowledge that an early negative experience is often enough to cause students to give up on the dream of becoming an engineer. That’s not what Blue wants.

It’s not what Brian Kirkmeyer wants either. As Assistant Dean for Student Success in Miami’s College of Engineering and Computing, it’s his job to help keep engineering students’ dreams alive.

“It serves no purpose for students’ dreams to be squashed,” he says. “That doesn’t get us more engineers and computer scientists. We want physics to be a course that sets students up for a successful STEM-based academic – and, ultimately, post-academic – career.”

Kirkmeyer’s sentiment is consistent with the goals of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Education program.

“The NSF knows that there’s a crisis in America with engineering, that we don’t have enough engineers, and that there are all sorts of places in the pathway to engineering where there are problems,” says Amy Summerville, who is the lead investigator on a $368,000 grant from the program.

In collaboration with Blue and Kirkmeyer, Summerville, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Psychology, is working to develop an intervention to improve engineering students’ success in physics courses.

Summerville’s area of expertise is counterfactual thinking, or thinking about how things might have been, as opposed to how things actually are. According to Summerville, counterfactual thinking is important not only because it helps us identify the causes of negative events, but also because it helps us set intentions for the future.

For instance, she says, someone who’s been involved in a car accident might think, “If only I hadn’t been texting, I wouldn’t have had the accident.” That thought can lead that person to decide to leave their phone in their bag the next time they get behind the wheel.

Summerville thinks that helping engineering students who experience an early setback in a physics class – say receiving a “D” or “F” on the first exam – think about what they might have done differently before that exam could improve their future performance.

“We know,” says physics instructor Blue, “that students aren’t all doing the things that we desperately wish they would do, like completing their homework, coming to class, asking for help, going to office hours.”

The solution Summerville imagines is a worksheet that physics instructors would give to students when they hand back the first exam. The worksheet would ask students a series of questions about how they prepared for the exam and encourage them to reflect on their performance. Then, critically, the worksheet would ask students to generate ideas about what they could do differently to prepare for the next exam.

If Summerville’s intervention proves effective, it would have a significant advantage over many other interventions that have been tried in the past.

“Lots of engineering programs have tried really elaborate, really expensive ways of addressing this – changing pedagogy, creating cohorts, creating all sorts of new administrative systems,” says Summerville. “And what this might allow us to do is help students better take advantage of all the resources that are already there, with almost no additional investment.”

That prospect has intrigued other engineering educators, including members of the project’s advisory board, who work at some of the region’s biggest and most prestigious engineering schools. Still in the first year of their three-year project, the team already has invitations to give talks or lead workshops at The Ohio State University, Purdue University, and Indiana University. Even institutions farther away, like the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and Texas A&M University, have expressed interest.

While she’s excited about the interest her team’s approach has generated, Summerville cautions that their worksheet isn’t magic, and that it’s important for educators to understand the characteristics of their particular students and to take into account the specific circumstances they face.

“We’re figuring out what works at Miami,” she says. “And there may be important differences between us and other universities.”

One difference, Blue notes, is that Miami students tend to be better prepared than many students at other institutions.

“When I talk to colleagues at other universities, they say, ‘Well, if only our students could do Algebra I material, they might survive,’” Blue says. “Our students can do the math. They’re totally qualified to be there. But they didn’t have to do all this stuff to get ‘A’s in high school, most of them, so they don’t always realize what it’s going to take.”

By delivering talks and leading workshops Summerville hopes to help engineering educators understand the science behind the intervention, so that they can use it to guide students to take ownership of the behaviors that influence their individual academic success. There’s a huge difference for nearly everyone, she says, between being told what to do and making your own decisions.

Kirkmeyer agrees that’s key. “Self-efficacy’s a powerful thing,” he says.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Physics classroom photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services. Argon-ion laser photo by University of Exeter via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.


A hand wearing a purple glove holds a cylindrical, transparent hydrogel in its palm. In the background, more hydrogels rest in petrie dishes and various metal instruments are on a parchment-colored tray.

3D printing is a promising new dimension in medicine

Two women in white lab coats are focused on and touching a piece of machinery on a tabletop. The machine is made primarily of white plastic, but also has some metal parts, and it has some cables extending out from it. The woman in the left of the frame has long, dark blonde hair. She is seated and wears glasses. The other woman stands to the first woman's left. She also wears glasses and has short, dark hair.
Master’s student Martha Fitzgerald (left) and Dr. Jessica Sparks, associate professor in chemical, paper, and biomedical engineering, conduct research to create lifelike tissues with a 3-D printer.

Painful pressure ulcers often afflict the elderly and people with limited mobility. Better known as bedsores, these ulcers sometimes lead to life-threatening complications and can be costly to treat.

“They’re something that all long-term care facilities want to prevent in any way that they can,” says Jessica Sparks, an associate professor in the department of chemical, paper, and biomedical engineering at Miami University.

Sparks is collaborating with Miami nursing faculty Deborah Beyer and Brenda Barnes ’82 on a proposal to develop pressure ulcer models that are realistic in color and shape.

Their proposal involves additive manufacturing (AM) technology. AM — often referred to as 3-D printing — uses three-dimensional design data to deposit successive layers of metal, plastic, or other material until a three-dimensional solid item is complete.

“We’re going to use the models to train the frontline staff, who would be the most likely to see a very early-stage pressure ulcer developing on a patient,” Sparks says.

Those staff members could then call in a wound care specialist to administer treatment before the condition progresses.

“Using 3-D printing in the field of medical simulation for training has lots of potential,” Sparks says. “Those two things should go together.”

Sparks, Beyer, and Barnes plan to request funding for their project from the Ohio Board of Regents’ Workforce Development and Equipment Facility program within the next two years. They are encouraged that recent conversations with a large regional hospital and wound care specialists at the Veterans Affairs health system have generated enthusiasm for this work.

“Their response makes it clear there’s good potential demand for what we’re trying to create,” Sparks says. “I’m confident we’ll have a good test platform for this technology.”

As valuable as models like this are for training, Sparks thinks they’re just beginning to tap into AM technology. With pressure ulcers, she explains, patient-specific anatomy is less important.

The same is not true for other clinical applications, such as a tumor with a specific geometry. In those situations, surgeons need to be able to practice with 3-D models that resemble the real tumor as much as possible, Sparks says.

Commercially available AM equipment can use anatomical data from a CT scan or an MRI to print the type of patient-specific training models Sparks envisions for surgeons. But, these models lack tissue-like mechanical properties.

“Some 3-D printers can print in flexible materials,” Sparks says, “but those materials don’t do a great job of mimicking biological tissue.”

Sparks wants to change that. Aided by a research incentive grant from Miami’s Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, she and her biomedical engineering colleagues Jason Berberich and Justin Saul are developing new 3-D printing platforms. They use materials that look and feel more like human skin, muscle, blood vessels, and other soft tissue.

The research incentive grant also supports the work of research assistant and master’s student Martha Fitzgerald ’13, who plans to write her thesis on the techniques she has helped develop.

Together with Sparks and Berberich, Fitzgerald has written an oral presentation that she will deliver at the Biomedical Engineering Society national conference in October, an “excellent opportunity for Martha,” Sparks says.

Other students have benefited from work in Sparks’ lab as well. Last year, Sparks, Berberich, and Saul supervised two teams of senior biomedical and chemical engineering majors whose yearlong, self-directed capstone projects focused on the new 3-D printing platforms in development.

One of the two teams won a prestigious Undergraduate Research Award, which provides financial support for the university’s most promising faculty-mentored research by students. Sparks and Berberich plan to mentor two more teams this year.

“By involving students in research — where there is no recipe or cookbook that tells you, ‘If you follow all these steps, you will get the exact answer you’re expecting’ — I help student engineers develop not only technical skills, but also the problem-solving skills they’ll need to meet the growing demand for AM in the economy,” Sparks says.

Her commitment to mentoring may mean that her contributions to the field of AM will extend well beyond her own discoveries and innovations to influence those of future generations of engineers.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Image of hand holding hydrogel by Heather Beattey Johnston, OARS. Image of Fitzgerald and Sparks by Jeff Sabo, Miami University.

This post originally appeared as an article in The Miamian, the magazine of Miami University’s alumni association.  It is re-used here with permission.