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Work in Progress: Increasing Communication Avenues Between Mechanical Engineering Doctoral Students, Faculty, and Administration

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Growing and Maintaining Graduate Enrollment

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

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Paper Authors


Adrienne K. Scott University of Colorado, Boulder

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Adrienne Scott is currently a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder working towards her PhD in Mechanical Engineering. Her research currently focuses on cellular biomechanics and mechanobiology. She recently received her masters from the University of Colorado Boulder in Mechanical Engineering. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University. In addition to her research in the field of mechanobiology, she is also interested in research in engineering education. Specifically, she explores increasing graduate student retention rates, mentoring graduate students and supporting underrepresented populations in STEM.

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Madalyn D. Kern University of Colorado, Boulder

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Dr. Madalyn D.Kern received her B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering through the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her doctoral thesis focused on characterizing adhesion between a micro-patterned surface and a soft substrate for the application of optimizing the mobility of a surgical robot capable of navigating portions of the gastrointestinal tract. She is a recipient of a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and served as the Lead TA for the Department of Mechanical Engineering for one year. Dr. Kern also received a grant through the NSF’s GROW program allowing her to travel to South Africa to work on designing a more accessible prosthetic socket for lower limb amputees. Her work in South Africa led to her found a company, ReForm, Inc., to further pursue this work. Currently, Dr. Kern is a design engineer for Stryker Corporation and works on product design and development of neurovascular devices.

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Julie E. Steinbrenner University of Colorado, Boulder

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Julie Steinbrenner earned her PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University in 2011. She is currently a Senior Instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University of Colorado Boulder, where she teaches Senior Design, Mechanical Engineering as a Profession, and thermo-fluids courses. She has also developed new curriculum and programming for student professional development and career exploration which have strengthened connections between students, alumni and industry partners. She serves as chair of External Relations for the Department of Mechanical Engineering at CU Boulder. She has been the Wolenski/Roller Faculty Fellow since 2017.

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The attrition rate of doctoral students is approximately 50% and many doctoral students leave during the first year of their program. The Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) has supported numerous initiatives to increase communication avenues between first-year doctoral students and department faculty and staff so that our students do not follow this statistic. Overall, the goal is to aid students’ transitions to graduate school by providing a more supportive environment with clear expectations and improved communication avenues. Many of the initiatives have been outcomes of our department’s Lead Teaching Assistant (Lead TA) role. Our department partners with our University’s Center for Teaching and Learning to elect a more senior graduate student within our department as the Lead TA. In addition to supporting the first-year students (both first-year TAs and first-year students that are not TAs) in their development of teaching and professional skills, our Lead TAs take the time to listen to and address feedback from the first-year students to support their strong initial trajectory into their doctoral study.

Common issues that arise during graduate school include, advisor-advisee disagreements, time management of research and teaching, social isolation, and academic challenges. Several Lead TAs noticed that students did not seek help immediately when these issues developed leading to frustration or increased stress. In response, the Lead TAs organized mandatory 20-minute meetings between each first-year student, the Lead TA, and the graduate advisor. These conversations allowed the team to identify areas where support or intervention was needed. Many first-year students have shared their appreciation for these check-in meetings and have remarked on the department’s commitment to help each student succeed.

Additionally, other methods for increasing communication were identified. For example, several students found that there was a lack of conversation establishing clear expectations with their PhD advisor. In fact, a study of the graduate school revealed that 26% of mechanical engineering PhD students were dissatisfied with the clarity of expectations about academic requirements and expected progress. To address this problem, the Lead TA created a one-page document that listed suggested topics (e.g. vacation time, research hours, academic progress) for students to discuss with their research advisors. Teaching assistants (TAs) also found the expectations of their TA positions were unclear and varied greatly depending on the class. Similarly, a one-page expectations document was developed for TAs to review with the professor or instructor responsible for the class to help establish the scope of their responsibilities. Finally, the Lead TA distributed surveys to collect data on how TAs allocate their time for different teaching related activities (e.g. grading, office hours) so that the expectations and variations for each class can be shared with incoming TAs.

This paper explores the impact of these different initiatives to increase communication between first-year doctorate students, faculty and the department administration in the Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering Department at CU Boulder. We are using surveys to evaluate the effect of these changes on student satisfaction levels. We also are gathering feedback from professors about the implementation of these tools. The changes described and analyzed in this paper have been made organically; initiatives have been developed and implemented over time as different needs and potential solutions have been identified. This approach increases the complexity of analysis, so we have presented the data that has been collected to date, but also recognize there are many contributing variables. We will continue to collect and analyze data to assess the impact of the various initiatives of the Lead TA more concretely.

Scott, A. K., & Kern, M. D., & Steinbrenner, J. E. (2020, June), Work in Progress: Increasing Communication Avenues Between Mechanical Engineering Doctoral Students, Faculty, and Administration Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35652

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