Reimagining education leads to President’s Professor honor

February 15, 2019

When Keith Hjelmstad first arrived at Arizona State University in 2008, it was as university vice president and dean of the College of Technology and Innovation. In 2011, he joined the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering as a structural engineering professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Hjelmstad was one of five ASU faculty members named President’s Professor in 2018. The honor recognizes faculty who have made substantial contributions to undergraduate education at ASU. Keith Hjelmstad (middle) was named an ASU President's Professor in recognition of his ability to engage, challenge and excite undergraduate students by creating an innovative, highly engaging learning environment. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

“I am truly humbled by the honor of being named a President’s Professor,” said Hjelmstad. “I am deeply appreciative that ASU places enough value on the teaching mission to have such a distinction.”

Upon his arrival, Hjelmstad’s colleagues asked him about teaching the foundational sophomore-level engineering mechanics courses. He agreed to teach the dynamics course, setting the roadmap for what would become "The Mechanics Project"his effort to rethink how engineering mechanics is taught to undergraduates.

Hjelmstad’s inspiration to improve teaching for undergraduates is simple.

“We ask students to make a huge leap as they progress from high school to the profession of engineering,” he said. “They deserve the very best we can offer to put them in a position to succeed. These students are the future, and investing in the future seems like a good thing to do.”

Modernizing structural engineering education

Before arriving at ASU, Hjelmstad had been practicing and teaching computational mechanics at the graduate level his entire professional life. So when asked to take a look at the undergraduate courses, he wanted to give them a fresh view. Though he had not taught undergraduate mechanics before, having taught the courses downstream from it gave him insight into what might be most important for students to grasp.

He also realized the textbooks and approaches widely used to teach the subject had not changed much since he was a student taking mechanics courses 40 years earlier.

“The approach to learning the foundational ideas of mechanics were sort of stuck in time,” said Hjelmstad, “but the way engineers function and the tools they use have changed significantly.”

The work of structural engineering is evolving, so one of the biggest challenges to teaching it is imagining the role of engineers in the future and what they will really need to know.

“As it is with most things these days, it is innovate or die,” said Hjelmstad. “We need to find the ideas and approaches that take us to the future. Education can drive the evolution.”

Though as Hjelmstad knows firsthand, change can be difficult.

The “chalk and talk” approach to lecturing was Hjelmstad’s chosen teaching method for 30 years, but he has learned it is not the best learning environment for students. Research suggests active engagement helps students retain information far better than passive lecture.

Hjelmstad believes it is important to have a variety of methods for students to learn rather than relying solely on lectures and tests. Having options helps eliminate invisible barriers to success that may exist in the traditional classroom setting.

“Engineering education is not just about learning a set of recipes that you can cook with forever,” said Hjelmstad. “It is a mindset, a way of thinking. The earlier you can begin to form that mindset the more likely it is that students will benefit from it.”

student talking to other students

Hjelmstad brings in undergraduate teaching assistants during recitations to foster an air of discovery, discussion and mutual learning for his students. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

The Mechanics Project

Hjelmstad’s approach to classroom teaching didn’t change overnight. Over the years, he tried many times to make small incremental changes to his teaching, only to be lured back into his long-held habits of lecturing.

“There are some pretty deep ruts, and change always faces the headwinds of opposition,” said Hjelmstad. “What we have tried to do through The Mechanics Project is to show that change is possible.”

The Mechanics Project is the name Hjelmstad gave to a broad effort to reform sophomore-level courses in mechanics (Statics, Dynamics and Deformable Solids). These courses represent a bridge between the math and science of students’ freshman year and the upper-division engineering application courses of civil, mechanical and aerospace engineering curricula and others.

One key component to The Mechanics Project, and a new approach to teaching for Hjelmstad, is “recitation.” In recitation, the students work in groups on a problem of the day, while the instructional team — the instructor and group of undergraduate teaching assistants — provide guidance.

“The first time I walked into recitation I honestly did not know what to do,” explains Hjelmstad. “It was scary, but I kept my promise not to lecture. I quickly learned how to function in the recitation environment, and now it is my favorite part of teaching.”

In his courses, Hjelmstad has revised the class schedule so there is one lecture every two weeks, four recitation periods and one exam. One of the recitations is actually a rehearsal exam to help get ready for the module assessment.

“The first time I walked into recitation I honestly did not know what to do. It was scary, but I kept my promise not to lecture. I quickly learned how to function in the recitation environment and now it is my favorite part of teaching.”
— ASU President's Professor Keith Hjelmstad

Another important aspect of Hjelmstad’s teaching philosophy is to diagnose problems through understanding and execution. As a traditional lecturer Hjelmstad taught the mythical student — a composite of every student he has known that held common misconceptions about the subject matter. That changed with his new method.

“When I flipped my classroom, I saw where the students were actually struggling, and it was often not where I thought they would be struggling,” said Hjelmstad. “I think we spend too much time answering the wrong questions in the traditional learning environment. You also need to create an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions.”

Putting students’ needs first and employing an instructional team that includes undergraduate teaching assistants creates a student-centered learning environment that is highly personalized, adaptable and very responsive. Hjelmstad’s teaching model fosters a social learning infrastructure that allows for peer-to-peer learning that continues to operate beyond the classroom.

“These classes are challenging. The undergraduate teaching assistants don’t just help the students; they are proof that these difficult ideas can be learned. The entire instructional team participates on the motivation side of the ledger,” said Hjelmstad, who is a strong believer in peer-to-peer learning.

If you think of the course instructor as “the one who knows,” then you create a bottleneck for learning. The instructor is not always available and cannot always respond in a timely manner, so building a learning network is key.  

“If you enhance the network then you solve part of that bandwidth problem,” said Hjelmstad. “Students do not automatically know how to participate productively in this networked environment. We take that on as part of the learning process.”

Keith Hjelmstad is the fourth Fulton Schools faculty member to be named a President’s Professor at ASU joining James Adams, Braden Allenby and Mark Henderson.

Improving teaching without altering content

Hjelmstad’s book, "A Walk in Euler’s Footsteps: Case Study in Teaching Engineering Dynamics through Pedagogies of Engagement," serves as a guide to others looking to transform engineering education based on The Mechanics Project.

In his book, Hjelmstad breaks down the methods that he has utilized to reform how courses in mechanics are taught at ASU. See the list below.

Graphic showing engineering education goals and steps

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU’s CSPO ranked one of the world’s top think tanks for science and tech policy

February 15, 2019

Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO), a research unit of the Institute for the Future of Innovation in Society, has once again been named one of the top 10 think tanks for science and technology policy in the latest edition of the University of Pennsylvania’s “Global Go To Think Tank Index.”

This is the third consecutive year that CSPO has been ranked in ninth place and the fifth consecutive year it has appeared in the top 10. The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program of the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania — with the voting help of a panel of peers and experts from media, academia, public- and private-donor institutions and governments — publishes the annual index ranking the world’s leading think tanks in a variety of categories. Download Full Image

“I’m proud of this acknowledgment from our peers who participate in the rankings,” said Dave Guston, co-director of CSPO and director of ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “And (I'm) remarkably pleased for the efforts of our faculty, staff and students that go into all the fine work that those peers have recognized.”

“One thing that really distinguishes us from other think tanks is our focus on public engagement,” said Daniel Sarewitz, CSPO co-founder and co-director. “We’re deeply committed to the idea that citizens should have a role in helping to steer powerful new technologies toward a better future for all.”

Founded in 1999, CSPO also sits at the core of the research and policy engagement activities of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, which was created in 2015. CSPO is dedicated to understanding the linkages between science and technology and their effects on society. CSPO develops knowledge and tools that can more effectively connect science and technology to progress toward desired societal outcomes.

Notable recent projects that have solidified the consortium’s thought-leadership status include:

  • Citizen perspectives on driverless vehicles: Technological innovation is a powerful force for social change, yet it is rarely subject to focused, anticipatory democratic deliberation. In recent decades, however, tools for steering technological change in democratically responsive ways have been developed, tested and, to a limited degree, deployed. CPSO worked with the Kettering Foundation to create a guide for citizens to discuss their perspectives on a transformative technology: self-driving vehicles.
  • Democratic governance of solar geoengineering research: CSPO engaged a diverse group of citizens to inform decision-making about research into solar geoengineering. A controversial option for combating the effects of climate change, solar geoengineering could have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences for life on Earth. This project focused on citizen values and concerns as a necessary input to the decisions and governance of potential geoengineering research programs.
  • New Tools for Science Policy: The breakfast seminar series hosted by CSPO catalyzed discussions and collaborations between science policy researchers and decision-makers. Recent topics included bringing public perspectives into large-scale energy projects, citizen rights in the age of surveillance and how data users factor into the development of NASA space missions.
  • "Issues in Science and Technology": Published in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the University of Texas at Dallas, the journal features the nation’s best writing on policy related to science, technology and medicine. The quarterly publication provides insightful commentary from leaders on critical policy topics not covered elsewhere: reforming STEM higher education, space policy and regulation, technological change and the future of work.
  • The Rightful Place of Science: The book series explores complex issues related to science and technology in brief, readable volumes. Jargon-free and perfect for students, professionals or the public, this innovative series delivers thought-provoking ideas on the complex interactions among science, technology, politics and society. Recent topics include new science policy tools, knowledge system organization and disasters and climate change.  

Upcoming projects in 2019:

  • Navigating Our Shared Autonomous Futures: A large-scale, multicity, global public consultation project on the development and adoption of autonomous mobility. Building on earlier citizen engagement work in the United States and France, this project will provide informed, deliberative, diverse and useful public views and values to stakeholders in government, industry, academic and nongovernmental sectors. CSPO’s ambitious vision, in collaboration with its Paris-based partner Missions Publiques, is to host 100-person public forums in 25 cities each in North America and Europe in the summer of 2019.
  • The Future of the Internet: This global debate will explore citizen perspectives on a technology that has transformed how people communicate, shop, learn and work. It will engage hundreds of nonexpert citizens, creating an unprecedented opportunity for the public to contribute to the evolution of this vital technology.

The consortium draws on the intellectual resources of ASU and other institutions for the scholarly foundation to assess and foster outcome-based policies across a broad portfolio. CSPO’s core commitment is to generate useable knowledge for real-world decision-making in order to better align those decisions with positive social outcomes.

Read the 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index.

Senior Manager, Communications and Marketing Strategy, School for the Future of Innovation in Society