Engineering professor named 'Rising Star' by national organization

Dr. Reva Johnson, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering at Valparaiso University, was recently named a 2021 KEEN Rising Star by the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN). 

“The department is really proud of her [Johnson’s] efforts, and really honored to have her in the department. And she’s very deserving of the award,” said Scott Duncan, Chair and Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

KEEN is a partnership consisting of over 50 U.S. colleges and, in addition to awarding collegiate faculty, the organization also offers training programs which Valpo faculty sometimes attend.

“They have workshops. They have a national conference. Faculty go and learn about KEEN’s philosophy and how to incorporate it in their courses. And they do it at different levels,” Duncan said.

The KEEN Rising Star award recognizes faculty who have less than ten years of experience who teach using an “Entrepreneurial Mindset”, a process which allows students to understand real-world applications of their work. This is done through following guidelines that KEEN refers to as “The 3 C's:” Curiosity, Connections and Creating Value.

To be recognized as a Rising Star, Johnson stated she was nominated by Dr. Ruth Wertz, Assistant Professor of General Engineering, who described how Johnson’s work applies the 3C’s. 

“Dr. Ruth Wertz nominated me for the award, and put together an application 

package, talking about things that I do in my teaching and in my research. And then, there's a committee at KEEN that takes submissions from all across the country from different institutions. And they chose three faculty from nominations as their Rising Stars,” said Johnson.

Johnson was one of three recipients of the award this year, the other two being from Ohio Northern University and Bucknell University.

Johnson noted she implements the 3C’s in her classes by asking students to not just think of the question “can we build this” but rather, “should we build this” and “what people are involved?”

“Engineers can go make things that they think are cool, but that's not useful unless you think about the end users. So, to really create human-centered designs, you need to be able to talk to the humans who are using your devices. And so, that takes really good communication. It takes empathy and understanding of other people’s stories,” Johnson said.

While teaching on human machine interfaces, Johnson utilized the aforementioned questions. She would feature a “human of the week story” detailing someone who had either designed or used the interfaces.

“Some of those people were engineers, some of them were physicians. Some of them were people who use these devices, [such as] someone who has a spinal cord injury or someone who has cerebral palsy,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s students would then write a reflection on the story presented, which she hoped would allow them to understand how their engineering work could impact others, such as providing devices for patients who need medical assistance.

“They wrote about what they found inspiring about that person. And then also they reflected on what they saw themselves in that person, what they saw as being similar,” Johnson said. “And it was really cool for me to read the students’ reflections every week to see how they were thinking about their own vocations and how they were thinking about other people's stories.”

As part of the award, Johnson will receive a $10,000 grant, with which she intends to co-develop a course on combining technical and creative writing styles with English Department Chair and Associate Professor of English, Richard Sévère. The course is expected to be available within the next few academic years.

The class would be open to non-engineering students, with Johnson hoping that students in writing-oriented majors, such as English and Communications and Visual Arts, would join in order to foster dialogue and increase knowledge of both engineering and effective communication.

“That course will include technical writing for those who are engineers, and also some potentially creative writing or in some way, including Public and Professional Writing majors and minors - Communications students - to think about how people of different majors and different backgrounds can have dialogue together, and we can learn to communicate better,” Johnson said.

Since Johnson has focused her teaching career on promoting creative mindsets in the classroom and is continuing to do so, she appreciated KEEN and the Rising Star award for acknowledging that.

“I think it was nice to be recognized by something involving creativity. For engineers, that's not always something that we get directly rewarded for. So, yeah, I think, for me it's just been fun to be involved with KEEN because it has helped me bring more creativity into my engineering and into my teaching,” Johnson said. 

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