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ASU assistant professor bridges a path toward better engineering education

Jeremi London

Jeremi London (second from left) is helping to shape the Fulton School's new Engineering Education Systems and Design doctoral program that starts in fall 2016. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

May 25, 2016

Jeremi London had her interest in engineering education sparked early on in her academic career. But her path to get where she is now at Arizona State University was far from a straight line.

As a freshman engineering student at Purdue, she told her first engineering professor, Bill Oakes, that she kind of liked education but she really liked engineering too, and that she was thinking about switching majors. He said, “Don’t switch; it’s easier for an engineer to become an educator than for an educator to become an engineer. If you like both, stick with engineering and you can always find your way into education circles.” This was the advice she needed in order to continue her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering.

“I liked the two topics, but I never imagined myself as a faculty member,” London said.

Purdue, at the time of her freshman year, was just starting its Engineering Education doctoral program, and Oakes planted a seed in the back of London’s mind that it was a field that she may want to pursue. Throughout the summers as an undergraduate student, she returned home to St. Louis, Missouri, and worked at Anheuser-Busch in traditional industrial engineering roles to ensure the consistent quality of products and continuous process improvement across breweries.

During her senior year, she had a transformative experience as an undergraduate research assistant with a faculty member in Purdue’s Engineering Education doctoral program. For the first time, she saw how her interests and the expertise of two seemingly disconnected fields — engineering and education — could seamlessly merge to address interesting and meaningful challenges. While being a faculty member wasn’t what she had in mind, she knew she’d return to engineering education somehow.

Prior to graduate studies, London worked as a quality engineer at GE Healthcare promoting the quality of invasive cardiology medical devices and their compliance with federal regulations.

After a year of missing the explicit connection to education in her everyday work, she applied to Purdue’s Engineering Education doctoral program and their master’s in Industrial Engineering program. In reflecting on what it was like to pursue both degrees simultaneously, London says “It was nice to have the difference in the two programs, but it was a lot to think about at the same time in my life,” she says. “I got to merge these things that had been on my mind for a long time.”

Cyberlearning advancing STEM education

One area of her engineering education research deals with the use of online tools to help personalize and support learning for students, an area known as cyberlearning.

“In a course full of diverse students, an instructor can only do so much. There are a variety of learners, and it’s difficult to tailor your instruction to all of the needs of the people in your class,” said London. “I was curious how we could use these online tools to help mitigate that. How can we use online tools to help personalize the experience for engineering students?”

“This led me to apply for some internship opportunities at the National Science Foundation (NSF),” she said. “In the Division of Undergraduate Education, they noticed an increase in these network technologies, like people using their phones and computers constantly, and wanted to discover how to leverage this in education.”

London worked at the NSF as an intern and looked at data from a 10-year period to see what NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education had funded that relates to cyberlearning and made recommendations about where the NSF should focus future investments. She later returned to NSF for two more internships.

“This is where my interests in policy grew,” said London. “I was able to study cyberlearning, and inform programmatic decisions that federal funding agencies make. I saw how a STEM background could influence policy, and how policy influences STEM education across the U.S. We need more STEM professionals in policy.”

What is impact?

An area that has become a heavy interest for London, an assistant engineering professor in the Fulton Schools, is impact and how it is defined and measured when it comes to research. London defines impact as “a time-sensitive interpretation of the extent to which a set of activities lead to change in and beyond the context in which the change originated.”

“What does it mean for a federally funded project to have impact?” London asked. “You have tax dollars that are supporting research, and the common taxpayer may or may not understand the research that is being done, but their resources are going towards supporting it. How can we begin to get better at communicating the impact of our work so that various stakeholders can appreciate the work that we do?”

There isn’t a lot of scholarship on research impact currently, even though “impact” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Impact isn’t studied much in scholarly circles, but London posits that there are three major reasons why it’s hard to study impact. These insights earned her the Best Paper Award at the 2015 Australasian Association of Engineering Education conference.

“The biggest problem is called the attribution problem, which is the struggle with connecting impacts of research with a particular project or researcher,” she said. “Part of the reason it is so difficult is because impact diffuses through time and space. You complete research and it influences one person and what they go on to do, but there’s no way to attribute the original research as being impactful.

“The second problem is the difficulties in assessment and evaluation,” she continued. “What data is most meaningful and how do you collect data and who should be doing the assessment? When should the assessment take place and how might the timing of the assessment influence whether what you observe is a short-term or long-term impact? Depending on when an assessment is done, the impact will be varied as research evolves over time. In the education context, how do you account for impacts that cannot be codified, like the development of students’ tacit knowledge and growth in expertise?

“The last major issue is interpretation. You can have two stakeholders who have different viewpoints observe the same research on a particular topic and come to totally different conclusions about its impact — largely because they came from different points of view. Additionally, we automatically assume impact positive and large, but negative and modest impacts exist as well.”

Her dissertation was focused on how NSF-funded researchers on STEM education projects currently talk about the impact of their work. Her work led her to look at other disciplines to see how they measure impact. Now, she wants to know how engineers can build off what they do and discovered that there is crossover. Her current work is focused on developing a framework to characterize the impact of engineering education research. The hope is that having a framework will help facilitate consistent language around the topic, and assist researchers in communicating the impact of their work more effectively. She is also a member of the RED project, and conducting research that begins to address the attribution problem in the context of engineering education.

A split in the path

London had no intention of becoming a faculty member, but her existing relationship with Ann McKenna, director of the Polytechnic School, helped steer her that way.

“Ann was on my dissertation committee, and I worked with her as a post-doc. After such a transformative experience as an NSF intern, I intended to apply for a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and had to wait a year due to an application requirement that I had to have defended my dissertation prior to applying. So I needed a one-year experience that could serve as a stop-gap before I could apply.”

After London submitted her AAAS application, McKenna encouraged her to consider ASU for the sake of “having options.” She agreed, explored the idea and was amazed by what she discovered.

“ASU is unlike any other institution. I chose ASU because it seemed like a place I could develop my research interests in policy and cyberlearning, work with really cool people — and of course, the region of the country doesn’t hurt,” said London. “Additionally, the idea of being able to shape a new doctoral engineering education program seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been involved in shaping the structure of the new engineering education program at ASU and have given input on the first cohort of students that will be students the program. It’s been an incredible experience. I made the right choice.”

The Fulton Schools are introducing their own doctoral program in engineering education with a degree program titled Engineering Education Systems and Design. The degree debuts in fall 2016, and London is working with Adam Carberry, assistant engineering professor in the Fulton Schools, on developing one of the program’s core courses.

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