Podcast Transcript: Bringing Industry to Academia

By youheng.dong

How can students use modern-day software like NX to facilitate learning? How does a hybrid teaching style help students learn more efficiently than in a traditional format? What tools and resources can help educators improve their current teaching systems? What path is engineering veering toward in the next 5 years?

Kathy Stevenson is a senior academic teaching specialist in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Michigan State University. With a Bachelor’s in Product Design and Development from Eastern Michigan University, Her professional experience includes powertrain and senior chassis design, 3D rapid prototyping, and curriculum development. Currently, she teaches basic and advanced NX computer-aided design courses. 

At Michigan State University Kathy works closely with the Siemens NX team to improve NX to work smarter and not harder. Kathy’s students are also invited to Siemens NX Student Days to hear from industry professionals and learn about NX’s full capabilities.

On this episode of Innovation in the Classroom, Kathy and Shannon O’Donnell will discuss:

  • Kathy’s background and her transition from industry to academia
  • Kathy’s solution in academia to better prepare students entering industry after graduation
  • Michigan State University’s academic partnership with Siemens
  • How students learn and get involved in the Siemens student NX Day
  • Creative, personalized-teaching methods to help students learn at their own pace
  • Thoughts on how engineering is evolving in the next 5 years

We did some beta testing for Siemens, they came on campus for two days, and I assigned my 385 class to go ahead and beta-test their new software for Sketcher.

  • Kathy Stevenson

Tune into the full episode to learn about how educators can innovate their teaching styles to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Stay tuned to Innovation In the Classroom whenever you do a podcast!

Podcast Transcript

Dora Smith: Welcome to Innovation In The Classroom by the Siemens Empowers Education Team. I’m Dora Smith. We talk a lot on this podcast about bridging the gap between academia and industry, and the ways in which this can be done. Whether it’s introducing students to new industry software or matching them with an industry mentor, a number of solutions exist to familiarize students with how the industry works. Another great solution is introducing individuals with previous industry experience to the classroom. This episode’s guest, Kathy Stevenson is a senior academic teaching specialist in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Michigan State University. She teaches basic and advanced NX computer-aided design courses. Her professional experience includes powertrain and senior chassis design, 3D rapid prototyping, and curriculum development. Among a multitude of other things. Kathy spoke to our very own Shannon O’Donnell about her time working in the industry, and what eventually led her to academia. She also broke down her teaching methods and curriculum and described how she’s been able to bring innovation into her classroom.

Kathy Stevenson: I think it’s really important, especially with today’s technology, in giving students guidance and laying out expectations, saying, “This is what we expect. I would like daily report updates or send me a weekly email about updates of where you are.” We always say “communication is key” to our employees, but it goes the other way as well. And I think the employer needs to lay out expectations to their new people.

Shannon O’Donnell: When contemplating the career path she wished to pursue, Kathy had initially decided on journalism before switching to engineering. As there isn’t a lot of overlap between these two disciplines, I was curious to know what it was that influenced this drastic shift.

Kathy Stevenson: I just learned that my interests lay in more of a critical thinking path. I was more interested in inventing things than I was in writing about things. I learned about engineering jobs, the availability of engineering jobs, the pay rates, and things of that nature that were really attractive. It wasn’t really difficult to find a job in engineering once you were completed with your program. So, I decided to pursue that avenue, I was a hands-on person and I like to create things, so it just seemed like a good fit for me. So, that’s why I ended up changing. 

Shannon O’Donnell: After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a Bachelor’s in Product Design and Development. . She was a young woman, entering a male-dominated field in the wake of the women’s rights movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She explained to me what this—her first experience working in industry—was like.

Kathy Stevenson: Working in a male-dominated field was challenging because of the time that it was back then, it’s nothing like today. Sure, today, it’s a much different environment. But back then I was the only woman in my group, especially in design. I was young, too, so I wasn’t really taken seriously about what I knew. I didn’t feel like I was one of the team, I guess I was kind of the outsider. Back then there were a lot of policies that were being implemented by different corporations,. And the men resented me for those policies because I didn’t have anything to do with it, but they were required to make changes in their workspace environment: calendars, pictures, and things of that nature. And then as well as I had to endure a lot of unprofessional experiences: whistling, degrading comments, and things of that nature. So, it was a challenging time for sure, but I stood my ground and always persevered through it.

Shannon O’Donnell: Unfortunately there was not much else that could be done at the time for a woman in Kathy’s position except to persevere. Moving forward into present-day, new graduates are still dealing with their own challenges when entering the workforce. I asked Kathy what some of those challenges are and how they can be mediated.

Kathy Stevenson: Don’t forget, some of our graduates nowadays just went through a pandemic where they learned everything online. And one of my students said the other day, they were talking about a former employer, and they said, “It’s frustrating because I didn’t understand they wanted me to communicate so much.” When in fact, in classes, when we’re working remotely, we never hear from our teacher until there’s a question; they work on their own independently, and then turn in the assignment or seek out the teacher when they need them. It’s important for employers to understand that some of these graduates now have gone through that, and they need to maybe lay out more expectations, more guidelines about what they expect of their new employees — and any employee for that matter. Keeping it light-hearted and not so intense, and just inviting them to coffee or something if they’re not remote. Working remotely does have its drawbacks, for sure, you’re not building those relationships. I think relationship-building is another key.

Shannon O’Donnell: So employers should be cognizant of their employees’ academic habits, specifically for new graduates, and they should also be setting clear standards for what they expect of them. So what can be done on the academia side to ensure a smooth transition for students into industry? One of Kathy’s solutions is to introduce real world experiences, like lamp or hitch design, into the classroom. I asked her why this was important to students looking to enter industry after graduation.

Kathy Stevenson: The students are working on something familiar, something that they’ve seen before; they stay more engaged and they retain it better than something that they may have no relationship to whatsoever. Let’s say I took some fictitious part, some weird design, they don’t know what it goes to what it does, they just have to make it or model it or whatever I’m asking them to do. I found that just through my assessment in my courses that by giving them things they can relate to—like a trailer hitch, everybody’s seen one, they know the functionality of a trailer hitch and the assembly of it—as well as some other things that I implement in class, different brackets, and we do a fan assembly, they have to put together an oscillating fan and things of that nature. It’s something that everybody’s seen, so they can all relate to it, and they probably use, so they get the basic functionality of it but as well as they stay interested because it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know this is how it worked, or this is how it goes together, or this is how to model it.” So, I like to use those real-life projects so that they can relate to them, and then they stay engaged and they stay interested.

Shannon O’Donnell: As I mentioned earlier, Kathy started her career in industry before moving into academia. This transition was initiated when she took some time off after having her daughters and then returned to work just as the auto-crisis hit. Kathy decided to take this opportunity to do something different and she started teaching at a community college. She explained to me what this transition was like.

Kathy Stevenson: It was scary, I will be honest. I did not have education on my radar at all. I didn’t expect to go there. But the job presented itself and I’m always one to take on a new challenge. Plus, I was looking for something that was really going to fit my kids’ schedule, allow me to participate in their school activities, and be more available to them. Whereas the industry was more of a regimented schedule, it was a long drive, long hours, and not as much flexibility. So, when I found the job in education at a community college and I was just an adjunct instructor, it just gave me that flexibility I needed to work around my family to be employed. And then I really found myself engaged with the students and seeing their learning and their progression. So, it really hooked me in there. And here I am, some 13-14 years later.

Shannon O’Donnell: Having worked in both, Kathy believes that a major similarity between industry and academia is the collaboration aspect. She encourages her students to collaborate on work as they would in the real world. But why is this concept of collaboration so integral to the engineering world?

Kathy Stevenson: Teamwork never goes away, especially in engineering. It takes an army to put together one automobile, and we have hundreds out there on the market. So it’s about learning how to communicate with people. It’s about learning how to deal with challenging people. It’s about learning how to divide up the work or delegate. And it’s about learning how to just collaborate, in general, with a group of people that you may not have known before. So, in the industry, from my experience on a daily basis, I was in chassis design, so I could have worked with someone in suspension for one day and someone on the exhaust or frames on another day. So, it just depends. But you have to just know, can’t be shy about asking questions, you can’t be shy about working with people, you just have to move forward and remember, communication is always key.

Shannon O’Donnell: Kathy uses three things to help her students learn NX software: a course management system, an online course, through Tata technologies, and a T-Drive where they can access and follow along with exercises or tutorials on their local servers. I asked her to explain how each one of these things facilitates learning.

Kathy Stevenson: The way that I facilitate, and the way that I have built my course is through a very well-organized structured course. So, if you can eliminate the confusion for students, if they know what to expect, if you’re consistent and you are well planned out; from day one, my students can look through our course management system, which we use, D2L. And they know when the dates of all their exams are, they know when their homework assignments are going to be issued and when they are due, they know what to expect on the last day of class. The entire semester from day one is laid out in full. So, there are no surprises. And I follow that throughout the whole semester unless there’s a snow day or something, or a pandemic that breaks out. The course management system gives students the course calendar, the course announcements, and their gradebook, which they can access on any day, anytime. They always know what they’re getting in the class. If there are questions, they can email me, and it’s better sooner than later to email me about that. There’s nothing to guess, and it’s very well organized and laid out. And then as far as the online course, that is for my NX content only. So, I have tutorials, I have learning videos, I have follow-along engaging exercises that they can do with me through a video. I custom-make all my own videos so that the content is relevant to what I am teaching and how I am teaching it — in other words, the order in which I choose to teach it. And then they’re guided through a series of steps. So, I set up everything in my content: step one, step two, step three. The other advantage of doing it this way with an online course, it’s not a fully online course, it’s a hybrid course, but they are given flexibility in their schedule: having three days to complete their projects, and so on. So, they have this online course to reference and get their homework assignments, as well as the T-Drive. And the T-Drive I couldn’t live without because that’s where their student folders are, that’s where they save their work, that’s where I pull it for grading, that’s where I use the universal drive so all students can access the part files that we’re using for course discussion.

Shannon O’Donnell: As you’ve just heard, there are a lot of pieces that make up Kathy’s teaching process. So how does she ensure that students are able to grasp all of them without losing some along the way?

Kathy Stevenson: I have a Start Here folder. And in the Start Here folder, I break it down into each category: my information, the grading scale, the remote access, so if they’re going to work from home, how to dial-in basically, it’s a like a VPN. All of these important things, it’s all broken down into segments, rather than handing out a four-page syllabus on paper, which they never read 90% of the time, I broke it up into the course management system into segments. So, now they have a folder that has all that relevant information. Then when we switch over to I Get It, they have another Start Here folder—now they’re familiar with the Start Here folder—and in that folder, it shows them how to navigate through the current course, a video, it shows them how to navigate through and save their homework, it shows them how to access the T-Drive universal files — all of that is in that Start Here folder. So, again, it’s just organization, breaking it all up into segments, and then giving them consistency. So, Start Here in D12, there’s a Start Here in and I Get It, and then the same to follow through with the steps that are completed. But in summary, by combining all three things—the course management system, the online course, the T-Drive—it just creates a positive and really engaging learning environment. So, I get a lot of positive comments about how the videos are really useful. And they’re not trying to learn everything in 50 minutes, and then retain everything in 50 minutes, and then leave; they can rewind things and do things at their own pace. This has really been an accumulation of 10 years of work. It’s always because I’m always assessing, and as soon as I find a deficiency somewhere, I’m assessing how I can fix it and improve it, and how can I make it easier and work smarter, not harder.

Shannon O’Donnell: Kathy has also been working with the Siemens NX team to improve NX with the goal to work smarter and not harder. I asked her to describe how that experience of working with the NX team has been.

Kathy Stevenson: MSU has this academic partnership with Siemens. I go to the Siemens conferences every year and I love to participate. So I started doing the presentations and engaging with a variety of Siemens employees. Through that, I’ve met so many people, and they’re always asking me, “What do you think about this? And how are you utilizing this tool?” And then I just provide my feedback from an academic standpoint. A good example I can think of is that at one point, they were actually thinking about phasing out primitives, and I said, “Why would you ever do that?” Because even if you phase out primitives, there are going to be old files out there that they have to know how to use primitives, edit primitives, and create primitives so that if they come across an old model, they know how to use it. So, there are things like that, that just provide feedback. We did some beta testing for Siemens, they came on campus for two days, and I assigned my 385 class to go ahead and beta-test their new software for Sketcher. Webinars — they have NX Student Days, and I like to offer that webinar as extra credit; they have to write a one-page essay about how that could affect their careers, what they’ve learned, and things of that nature. So, I’d like them to stay engaged with experts from the industry and what Siemens is doing. And already I’m starting to read some of the essays that came out from the webinar last week, and the students are saying, “I didn’t have any idea that NX had all these capabilities.” They’re new to the software. So, it’s really enlightening to the students to hear from industry professionals, how they’re using it — race car teams, you name it. Red Bull, I think, was one of them last fall. So, it’s really neat for students to actually hear from industry professionals. So, I love the webinars. There’s also design contests that Siemens runs that if the timing is right, I like to get my students involved in. And just various things that come along. I’m always wanting to jump in and say, “Yeah, we’ll help.”

Shannon O’Donnell: In order to further integrate her students with the “real world”, Kathy has implemented a book on ASME standards to help students familiarize themselves with things like drafting standards and mechanical practices. She explained why this was important for her students’ progression.  

Kathy Stevenson: I teach to a very large volume of students, on average, about 250 students a semester. So I need most of them on the same page, 99%. But through my assessments that I mentioned earlier, I have noticed in my first semester here that the students were great in math and theory, but they didn’t know how a drawing how to make a drawing or never had a CAD class or drafting; they didn’t know what we can’t have continuing symbols were. This is as important. Knowing your engineering standards in engineering is as important as human biology is to a doctor. So, you can’t go forward without knowing those engineering standards and having some sense of 3D spatial awareness. So, if my students weren’t all on the same page, I had to get them there first. It’s the very basis and if you haven’t had anything from high school and it’s not a prerequisite for ME program, how are they to know? “I’m good at math, so I’m a good engineer.” But it takes a little bit more than that. So we cover those topics, ASME standards, the ISO standards, all of those different things and what they need to know.

Shannon O’Donnell: So, how does this implementation manifest in a classroom setting?

Kathy Stevenson: The first two and a half weeks of class, we spend all our time in engineering standards: How do you lay out a drawing? What are the views? How do you read blueprints or drawings? What are the symbols? What do they mean? How do you apply them? All of that kind of thing. And they are quizzed on all of those topics, so that on the third week, when we enter CAD, they have their spatial awareness; they know X, Y, and Z — length, height, and width; and they know how to read the general views of a drawing. And from there, we build on that in class on making models, and then we start with mechanical drawings, then we use all those symbols that we learned in those drawings, and then we move forward throughout the semester. So, by the time they are done, they’re well-versed in understanding those engineering standards that are critical as an engineer.

Shannon O’Donnell: Another challenge that Kathy faces as an academic specialist is standardizing her lessons for students with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience. One thing that she says has helped is the COVID-19 pandemic as it forced her to put all of her learning materials online. I asked her how this was successful in bridging the gaps between students with different learning levels.

Kathy Stevenson: Fortunately, I already had the online course set up, but we weren’t using it as an complete online resource; it was just where their NX content was and their homework assignments. But that forced me to think outside the box, and I say that because if you look around most colleges, you look around how people learn NX, generally, it is not through videos, typically it is in a face-to-face class, in a classroom environment, working on projects, etc. I used my same curriculum, but what I did is I broke it up into custom videos. And in those custom videos, I would cover two to three functions in each topic. For example, I just created one the other day that’s on extrude filters. How do you use extrude? How do you use the filters? What do the filters mean? I create that video, it’s about five minutes, then you go to the next video. So, what it does is it gives the students the ability to work at their own pace, to be able to take a break, to come back if they’re frustrated, come back later and start fresh. And this really helped with all learning levels because before the way our classes were set up is the students would come in and have to try to retain everything I taught them in 50 minutes, and then create a homework assignment. And the frustration levels were very high. I found students that knew CAD software systems counting ceiling tiles, and the ones that didn’t were red in the face because they got behind and they felt like they didn’t grasp the concepts. So they were really struggling. And then I had to spend a lot more office hours and scheduled an extra study hours for the students. Now, I found the silver lining in the fact that I put everything in videos, but I allow them the flexible time to get their work done and I provide eight hours of support a week for them to learn these concepts but to come to me or to my assistants for help. So, we have four hours a week of Zoom sessions, we have four hours a week of in-class. So, they have eight hours of support, where they can come and ask questions and learn. And we can provide the support for the ones that really need it. And the ones that were counting the ceiling tiles, they can just get it done and submit their work and they’re ready to move on to the next class. So, it really gave that customized option for all students no matter what level they were. Because if they really struggled, they have all the support they need. And if they were really a go-getter and already knew it and just wanted to get it done, then they could get it done and move on. It engages all levels, and it’s really been excellent.

Shannon O’Donnell: So how do Kathy’s personalized-teaching methods set her class aside from others?

Kathy Stevenson: Where my class might differ from some other classes? And I don’t know exactly for sure. But I do customize all my videos, personally. So, when I’m doing a video, I’m actually talking to them in the sense that “You want to click here and this is why, and you want to do this and this is why, and now we’re going to use this filter because.” So, they’re learning and they’re also going through the exercise with me together on the video, of course, but that’s what that universal T-Drive is for. So, with the combination of all of it, honestly, it works so well. I wouldn’t say I’m pretty well that having that ironed out 100%, but I have made improvements. Again, this semester, I found a few things, and I made some more improvements.

Shannon O’Donnell: And how do you Kathy’s students feel about learning in this kind of fashion?

Kathy Stevenson: The students love it. They love being able to learn it on their own. If they’re night owls, they stay up till one in the morning. And if they get up early in the morning, they like to work on it then, they can do it then. So, they have three days for each assignment to get done.

Shannon O’Donnell: Teaching engineering software can be challenging and, as you’ve heard from Kathy, it requires being creative with your teaching style as well as employment of a wide variety of tools. I asked Kathy which tools have been the most integral to her course.

Kathy Stevenson: Well, I use Camtasia and I wouldn’t be able to live without ZoomIt. So ZoomIt is a teaching tool where you can circle things, you can type things, you can highlight things. So, ZoomIt while I am actually in NX and I am doing a demonstration on a part, I can circle things, I can track things, and so on so that we’re not spending the students like, “Where did she find that button? I don’t see.” I can just go up and circle it. That way, it’s a lot quicker. So, ZoomIt is something I can’t live without. There’s another one, Snagit as well as Camtasia, of course, for all my video editing. Who knew I’d be a film producer, right? It was a learning curve for me. But again, I’m not present, my face isn’t on the videos. It’s too distracting, in my opinion. So, they hear my voice, and then I use ZoomIt circle things and go through the lesson. But those are the three tools that I absolutely utilize on a daily basis, as well as my online course where I implement all the videos in the lesson plans. And then, of course, D12 is where I manage everything.

Shannon O’Donnell: So, after discussing what industry and academia can both do to integrate the student experience, I wanted to take a look at the student perspective. Specifically, how big of a part does student feedback play in the improvement of academia as a whole?

Kathy Stevenson: Some of the biggest changes I made in my class are from students. I read their comments, I take them seriously. I know when a comment is to be taken seriously versus a comment that if I’ve told students from day one about due dates, calendars, and everything, and someone says, “Shit! I didn’t know what was going on.” Well, obviously, they probably never attended the course much. So, you’ve got to decipher, you’ve got to take the negative and figure out if is that really negative or is that someone that just didn’t want to take the course. You can teach the masses, you can give 110%, there are always going to be a few that complain. But why are they complaining? Did they fail? Or did they not like the subject? There are a lot of reasons. But I always take their comments seriously because some of the biggest changes that I’ve made have been from their comments. One student pointed out years ago that they felt like there was too much space between exam one and exam two, why not add a third exam? And I did. I did that because I thought maybe testing their knowledge in increments would be better. So, when we enter into Sketcher, for example, then I’ll test them just on Sketcher. Then we’ll get to modeling and a lot of the modeling tools, how to build models using various methods, then I’ll test them on that knowledge. And then we get into assemblies, I’ll test them on that knowledge. So, I broke it up and added a third exam, it’s a lot more work for me because I have to grade more. But I figured holding them accountable to learning the material right away instead of putting it off and trying to cram midway through the semester. So this way they’re learning sooner, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. There are a lot of students that will put things off until the last minute. So this way, it’s just holding them more accountable to learning it sooner.

Shannon O’Donnell: Finally, I asked Kathy what path she sees engineering veering toward in the next 5 years. 

Kathy Stevenson: Well, I don’t see anything but a sharp incline because of the fact that there are so many changes coming, and that being electric vehicles or other types of vehicles that pop up now and then—hybrids, electric, all those different things—I really think that, for example, reducing the mass of a vehicle or the size of a vehicle, things like that generates all new work. So, I don’t see there’s going to be any shortage in engineering and it doesn’t matter. I speak automotive because that’s where I’m from. But look at blenders, bicycles, toys, and makeup boxes; there’s packaging, there’s aerospace, there are so many aspects of engineering in our society. We’re great shoppers, so you’ve got to have that kind of consumer products out there. I’m always, like I said, looking forward to the next opportunity, especially anything that helps the students.

Dora Smith: A big thank you to Kathy Stevenson for sharing a bit about her engineering experience in industry and academia. There’s no doubt that she’s doing great, innovative work to prepare her students for a life outside of the classroom and that work is continuously evolving for the better. Stay tuned to Innovation In The Classroom wherever you do podcasts. I’m Dora Smith. Thanks so much for listening!

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