January 4, 2023
Frontiers in Education offers students opportunities for professional and personal growth.
This fall, a group of Olin students had an important professional development opportunity as they presented at an international educational research conference with their faculty advisor.
Held in October in Uppsala, Sweden, the Frontiers in Education (FIE) Conference focuses on educational innovations and research in engineering and computing education. Yevgeniya (Zhenya) V. Zastavker, professor of physics and education at Olin, attends FIE almost annually and strives to bring students with her whenever possible.
“FIE is one of the main gatherings in which engineering education scholarship is shared,” says Zastavker, who investigates the effectiveness of formal and informal learning experiences on engineering students’ motivation and desire to engage with engineering education and professional spaces. “Most of my work is done with my students, and this year seven students were able to travel with me to FIE to present two out of four papers.”
Julia Benton ’22, Meagan Martin ’24, and Vaani Bhatnagar ’25 presented their work entitled “Majority or Minority: the Impact of Students’ Identities on their Learning Journeys.”
“This project allowed us to better understand the effects of socio-emotional and cultural capital students may have coming into engineering education, such as having parents who are in STEM fields or being of a certain race, on the ways they engage with their learning environments,” says Benton, who began working on this research with Zastavker in the summer following her first year at Olin. “We want to encourage educators to hold space for their students to grapple with their own identities and to look at education as something that happens both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Bhatnagar, who lived in India until moving to the United States in the eighth grade, got involved with Zastavker’s research last December.
“I’m fascinated by education and how access varies around the world — it’s not very fair in many places,” she says. “I myself noticed the difference between India and the U.S., and I wanted to learn more about the discrepancies.”
For this investigation, Zastavker conducted interviews with four engineering students about their learning journeys, with each interview lasting between 2 and 6.5 hours. The Olin students then helped analyze the transcribed interviews, a process that allowed for identifying the ways in which students’ narratives of their learning journeys and their learning identities define the ways they engage with educational spaces, as well as how those spaces, in turn, define their identities.
“As a qualitative scholar, I work with interviews and observations, and these are the kinds of data that students can see themselves in,” says Zastavker. “They get to not only learn about the scholarship of engineering education — the literature landscape and methods — and participate in knowledge creation, but they also get to learn about themselves as learners and as engineering students. It’s very meta.”
“Traveling to Sweden was an amazing experience, and it was particularly special for me because this was my first chance to present in person to this international audience after pandemic delays,” says Benton. “Entering this conference as undergraduate students presenting alongside scholars with many more years of experience than us, we all felt some level of imposter syndrome. However, Zhenya helped us rediscover our confidence, reminding us that we are the ones who know these students’ journeys the best and that we are here to share their stories with the world.”
Benton was impacted so deeply by her work in the engineering education space that she is now working as a product designer for Stepmojo, an education technology company whose mission is to make high-quality courses and teachers accessible to all students. Benton is addressing educational challenges, such as the nationwide teacher shortage, by helping to build a more engaging and equitable hybrid learning experience for K–12 students.
“My work as a product designer in EdTech is a continuation of the work in the education space that I started while at Olin,” says Benton. “I loved my years working with Zhenya in education research so much that I stayed with [education as a profession].”
Effectiveness of Game-Based Learning Models
The other group of Zastavker’s students presented their research on the impact of game-based learning on engineering students’ confidence. The original paper was co-authored by Raúl Frías Pérez ’24 and Sydney Chung ’24; afterward, Keanu Richards ’24, Jen Sundstrom ’24, and Grant Goodall ’24 came on board to help with the FIE presentation.
“We partnered with other students at Rensselaer Polytechnic institute and Northeastern University to study how engineering students engage with different learning strategies,” says Frías Pérez. “We examined the learning outcomes for GeoExplorer, a game used by geotechnical engineering students to simulate a cone penetration field technique that uses very expensive technical equipment in real life.”
Except for Richards, the whole group traveled to Sweden for their presentation — an experience that was equal parts exhilarating and intimidating.
“I wasn’t that nervous until we saw the giant room and big stage we would be presenting on,” says Sundstrom. “But to be able to do this level of research as undergraduates and to get it accepted at this level of conference was really incredible.”
“At Olin, you’re surrounded by a research culture; it’s a cool opportunity, but it’s one of many we can choose from,” says Goodall. “When we got to FIE, we realized that not many other places do research at the undergraduate level in the way Olin does — we were practically the only undergrads there.”
Moreover, the students felt like they were helping to move the needle on Olin’s overall goal. Our research involves a change in engineering education, which is Olin’s whole thing,” says Frías Pérez. “I feel like we’re helping that mission by exploring new ways to teach engineering to future generations.”
For Zastavker, publishing and presenting original research gives students a greater sense of purpose in their education, instilling skills and confidence they’ll need going forward in life.
“I strongly believe that students should have the opportunity to tell their own stories; authorship means ownership,” says Zastavker.
“These students had the chance to develop their own research questions and become agents of their own learning processes. I had such a moment of pride and honor as I stepped back and they stepped forward into their own power on those stages in the most beautiful way.”