They came together to test whether transforming a mechanical engineering course from a more traditional lecture-based class to one that offers students more opportunities to interact would improve learning outcomes.
More than three years later, Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Paul Nissenson, as well as Juliana Fuqua and Faye Wachs, faculty in the psychology and sociology department, are being recognized by the CSU with a Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award.
The trio is among 26 faculty members from various fields awarded across the 23-campus system for creating innovative programs to bolster student success. Awardees receive a $5,000 cash award and a $10,000 grant that will be allocated to their academic department to support ongoing efforts in innovation for student success. There were more than 360 nominations from all 23 campuses.
“World-class CSU faculty are leading the charge as our university continues its remarkable progress in improving student learning and degree completion,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White. “These exceptional recipients demonstrate leadership in their respective fields and incorporate cutting-edge techniques into curriculum. Their commitment to student success ensures that the value of a CSU degree continues to increase.”
Nissenson sees the recognition as validation that the team’s efforts are helping students.
“It’s always nice to get an award,” he said. “It’s nice to get confirmation that people who have a view of the big picture at the CSU think it is something interesting or worthy of recognition. It makes me feel we are on to something.”
Several years ago, Nissenson led a project to “flip” a mechanical engineering course in fluid mechanics. Instead of a typical whiteboard lecture format, students would watch their lecture on video before class and spend classroom time reviewing materials, doing sample problems, asking more probing questions or working on group activities. From 2007 to 2017, 34 percent of students receive a D, F, or W in the traditional lecture version of the course. After the changes, the failure rate dropped to 11 percent, with passing students still meeting all the learning objectives, Nissenson said.
Mechanical engineering faculty members Angela Shih, Henry Xue, Priscilla Zhao and John Biddle, also wanting to improve passing rates for students, teamed up with Nissenson in 2015 to help produce videos for a variety of topics related to fluid mechanics. Wachs and Fuqua provided the data assessment that allowed faculty to determine whether the changes would benefit students.
“It’s been an interesting project for us because we were able to get involved in something we’re very excited about and interested in,” Wachs said, “and to have this kind of success with the project is astounding and really overwhelming.”
Both Wachs and Fuqua have conducted extensive research on underrepresented groups and women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, so the project offered them an opportunity to expand on that work, Wachs added.
Fuqua lauded the opportunity to work with faculty outside her department.
“It’s really been a pleasure to work across disciplines,” Fuqua said. “The engineering professors, such as Angela Shih who was is a fantastic innovator and leader, told us they were happy to hear our perspective. We strive to be transdisciplinary. I think we came up with a great project because we crossed those lines.”
Wachs and Fuqua created pre-course and post-course surveys to measure the attitudes and outcomes of students who took the traditional version of the class and those who enrolled in the flipped one. The pair also tapped six specially trained undergraduate research assistants studying psychology and sociology to conduct focus groups, which earned them specials awards at multiple conferences, such as 2nd place at the CSU Undergraduate Research competition in 2018.
Alumna Laura Da Silva (’18, psychology), who will head to Columbia University in September to pursue a master’s in school psychology said she enjoyed the chance to work on a research project.
“The reason I jumped on it very quickly is because I thought it was an amazing idea,” she said. “Dr. Wachs expressed that the creative part of designing the project had already happened, but being as close as I was to the research project generated a passion in me.”
Michael Ramirez (’18, psychology), a public health master’s student at UC Irvine, said he enjoyed presenting the project findings at conferences and diving deep into the research.
“I really loved it because it was both qualitative and quantitative data,” he said. “I got to see the psychological data transcribed in words and in numbers.”
The CSU award isn’t the first recognition that project has received. The students involved won several campus, regional and statewide awards, including the second place at the 2017 CSU Research Competition.
A group of seven faculty members, including Nissenson, Fuqua and Wachs, won the Online Learning Consortium’s Digital Innovation Award in December 2017.
The CSU has outlined an ambitious set of goals in its Graduation Initiative 2025 to improve degree completion rates and eliminate equity gaps. Nissenson said he hopes non-traditional teaching methods can help him and other faculty continue to bolster student achievement.
“Moving toward styles of teaching that are more engaging for students is something people should always be thinking about,” he said. “I put my heart and soul into this project, but it is not all me. It’s part of a larger team effort. It’s a labor of love.”
Award recipients will be formally honored in mid-October at the upcoming third-annual Graduation Initiative 2025 Symposium hosted this year in San Diego, California.