Barbara McCord, Ph.D., P.E.
Dr. McCord joined the University of Georgia College of Engineering from Georgia Tech, where she served as an instructor in the Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering Departments. She also has worked as a research engineer for Georgia Tech, Johnson Research and Development in Smyrna, Georgia, Remtech in Huntsville, Alabama, the U.S. Army Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, and Black and Veatch in Overland Park, Kansas.
“We’re trying to work I think to get the best education that we can, to share ideas, and the Engineering Education Transformation Institute is another way to try to figure out—what are the best practices and what are ways that we can improve and make our teaching better?”
A short conversation about engineering education with Dr. McCord:
What do you like most about working in the College of Engineering at UGA?
What I like about working here is that it’s a friendly environment, and I actually see the other faculty members. We often have these informal meetings where we can go to breakfast together and go to lunch together sometimes, and that’s nice and you feel like you get to know the people within the college’s community. My colleagues and I work together on some of the classes to try to make sure that we are consistent with each other—I taught fluids last summer so the other teachers shared their assignments with me so that we could kind of get the package for the students to be consistent. I think that’s really good. We’re trying to work I think to get the best education that we can, to share ideas, and the Engineering Education Transformation Institute is another way to try to figure out—what are the best practices and what are ways that we can improve and make our teaching better? I think there’s a big emphasis on that here – we have the full-time lecturers who only teach and are just focused on teaching. I think that’s a great thing which makes the bar for teaching is pretty high.
What role do you see learning technologies play in ENED?
I’m kind of new to some of the new learning technologies, but I’ve used McGraw Hill’s Connect for engineering thermodynamics, and then we’ve used the WileyPLUS for fluids. Some of the programs seem to work better than others and they each have advantages and disadvantages. But the thing I like about these programs is that when I assign the homework that the students get feedback immediately. In the past when I would have large classes I would have to just grade the homework on effort. I think well, here’s this student and they do the homework and they really maybe think they’re doing it right, but they’re not. And then they get just a check mark when they get it back and they still maybe think they know how to do it, but they really don’t. But with these online learning modules, if you put in a wrong number you find out immediately if you’re wrong. And then they try again and maybe they get it right the next time. I felt like using it that way, they have this feedback that they won’t carry around kind of the wrong concepts for a week or two thinking they know how to do it right and they really don’t. It helps to identify where there are deficits in knowledge and forces students to confront their misconceptions so that they are corrected right away. Ideally, I want them to try the problem and say okay, I have no idea how to do this, maybe. So, they look at the solution and the steps and say oh, okay, this is how this should go. And then they try it again, you know? — it’s kind of like having a tutor right there. So, I like that idea, the feedback is interactive and immediate, which makes them valuable learning tools.
What role does preparing students for engineering practice play in your teaching?
I worked for the federal government and for a small NASA contractor and then for a private company, so I’ve worked at a smattering of different places. I guess what I try to tell them is that some of this stuff isn’t as exact as we’d like it to be. Take heat transfer, for instance, you have to kind of guess an exit temperature, because you don’t know one, and students hate to guess anything. But you can kind of approximate it and the convection equations are off by 25% and it doesn’t really matter. You know? It’s close enough. The first job I had we had to do air conditioning calculations, okay? So, we’re calculating the heat coming into the building and all that stuff, and I did all of these calculations, I got it all finished, and they said “okay, now add 10%.” I was like “what?” He’s like “yeah, just add 10 or 15 percent, that way we make sure the equipment’s big enough”. In the real world, it’s not five digit calculations all the time. It’s really a question of is this good enough? This equation that is off by 25% is fine because people have been designing air conditioning systems using it for decades and they work. They’ve always worked, so maybe you can make them a little better, but it’s adequate. So say you’ve got this flow in a pipe, but the pipe happens to be in a cooling coil in a house; all I really care about is how much heat that coil removes. I don’t really care about what the boundary layer flow is .05 meters into the tube, you know? That’s irrelevant. It doesn’t make any difference. I want the big picture of what I’m looking at. So, a lot of time—not always, but a lot of time, you’re just looking at the big picture. It’s more of a question about concepts and what’s going on and what goes where than it is about having everything calculated down to the nth degree. So, I think to me that’s more their judgement in how would I approximate this. If I don’t know how to do it, how can I make a reasonable guess that will get me kind of close.
What skills and qualities do you hope to instill in your students?
I want my students to have a strong sense of confidence. I had a test question in a class earlier today that applied an equation we covered in a completely different way. I told the students maybe it’s a little off the wall and not exactly the way you learned to apply this equation, but just think about what seems reasonable to you and do what you think is reasonable. I really wanted them to think the problem through and describe their thought process and approach to solving the problem. It’s important to push them to try things that they haven’t seen before. In engineering we are often confronted with different angles of application and in order to work through that novelty it’s important that students have a little confidence to find their own judgment and figure it out. That process begins by determining what you know. When I’m asked a question my initial response is often “what do you know for sure?” and once that is established we can work from there. This is kind of weird, but I read this lady, P.D. James. She writes detective novels. But her detective solves all his cases—one of them he was in the bed sick, and he sent his kind of Watson guy out to collect information and come back and tell him. And he solved the case lying in bed, and he said is “look at the facts”. Go back just what you know for sure, not what you think, but what do you know for sure. I tell them that’s the way thermodynamics is, because you don’t say “I bet this is constant pressure”. No, it’s not. What do you know? You have to go back to what you know for a fact. But once that baseline level of understanding is reached the most important thing is for them to have the confidence in themselves that they can begin to think through the problem and use the information they have to really break it down and figure it out. Confidence is critical to this process.