Tonya Nilsson

After working in industry for a few years and earning my P.E. license, I was given the opportunity to teach as a lecturer at my undergraduate alma mater. Teaching was a perfect fit. I found I really enjoyed the challenge of developing multiple ways to explain ideas to help different students learn. It really required me to deepen my own understanding. Fortunately, a colleague recognized my passion and recommended I return to school for a Ph.D. so that I would be better positioned to create change and have an impact on students. During my Ph.D., I was fortunate to have an advisor who valued teaching and supported my efforts to learn about pedagogy. After my first year as a tenured-track faculty member, I was lucky enough to attend the ExCEEd teaching workshops, which allowed me to make huge leaps in my teaching ability and were a jumping off point for my own interest in improving engineering education.

I’m tough, but they learn

I believe my students really appreciate the effort I put in to make the material accessible. I have often been told by students that they know my courses will be tough but the tradeoff is they also know they will learn. They appreciate my enthusiasm for teaching and for the material along with my dedication to make the delivery organized with lots of visuals and demonstrations. They respond to my efforts to build interpersonal rapport and a safe environment for learning while still maintaining high expectations. Some student comments on evaluations are:

  • “Great professor!” Enjoys teaching, clear instruction, tests are challenging but not impossible. The perfect teacher.”
  • “Provides a very open and not intimidating environment to learn about civil engineering.”
  • “Dr. T is incredible. I really get the sense she enjoys passing on her knowledge and is very passionate about pushing us to do our best.”

I think peers admire my accessibility, passion for teaching, and commitment to constantly strive to provide a better learning experience for students. One colleague wrote, “…your reluctance to give anything less than your best makes you an excellent role model.”

Developing interests

While I don't believe that everyone is suited to be an engineer, as their natural talents may fall in other areas, I do believe that anyone who truly wants to join this field can achieve success in engineering. For anyone to persist at something that is challenging there has to be a desire for it. I try to develop each student’s interest in the topics by showing them where the information applies in their everyday lives--how what they are learning matters. I set high expectations and let them know I am confident they can achieve them. Further, I make sure I display as much enthusiasm about the topics I am teaching as I want them to have. Often students don’t have confidence in their own ability. I try to make an effort to congratulate students on any success I see, whether it is a great test result, an insightful comment in class, or a beautifully done homework. Often, I will make these comments in passing when I see the students on campus instead of in class. I also encourage my students to consider graduate school.

I want the students to be resourceful problem-solvers who pay attention to detail. In my courses, we spend a lot of time solving problems together and establishing a methodology for approaching each problem; highlighting what we know, what tools we have, and what we need to determine. Throughout the course, I include homework problems in areas that are addressed well in the text. I let the students know they need to use their resources for solving these problems, which will not be covered by me in class. This teaches students to use the tools available to them and rely on their own investigative prowess to solve problems—a skill that will be beneficial as they join the workforce. I also feel students need to be able to evaluate 'the best' solution based on a set of constraints and criteria they establish; they need to understand that there is never only one solution to real engineering problems. I helped develop a first year course for all our engineering students that introduces this concept in the first year and I try to incorporate this idea in all the classes I teach. When I advise senior design projects, teach our Engineering Projects for the Community course, or mentor our Engineers Without Borders chapter, I continue to emphasize the design process and the need to identify what is important (constraints and criteria) at the beginning..

In the big picture, I don't think the demands of employers are changing significantly. Employers want students who can think independently, work well on teams, and know their material. These same requirements were in effect when I was an undergraduate over 20 years ago. The greatest changes I see are a result of an evolving profession, e.g. code changes and changes in the software and technology. I appreciate the need to stay abreast with new developments in my field. I find the best way to keep up is to develop a new course or teach a course new to me. This past year, I developed two new courses for my department, one at the graduate level and one at the freshman level. While the graduate course was more challenging, the freshman level course required me to work on a more practical skill: I had to improve my AutoCAD skills and make a major upgrade to the software version I was using!

Balancing teaching and research

The challenge at being good at both research and teaching is both time and interest. If you are doing things you are interested in and believe are rewarding, it is easier to make the time. I believe more faculty would put more emphasis on teaching if it were rewarded by the administration. I have found that improved pedagogy makes teaching easier for me. Establishing learning objectives helps me streamline my lessons, focuses my efforts, and helps me write exams that are aligned with what the students are learning.

As a faculty member at a primarily undergraduate university, the teaching load makes research challenging. However, our senior design program provides excellent opportunities to work As a faculty member at a primarily undergraduate university, the teaching load makes research challenging. However, our senior design program provides excellent opportunities to work with students on research projects, which helps move research topics forward.

ASEE membership

ASEE keeps me excited about teaching and provides an amazing venue for like minds that value high quality teaching in engineering. Often I arrive at the annual conference tired from the previous school year. The energy of the conference and enthusiasm for teaching always recharges me and I leave the conference with a dozen new ideas to try in my courses the following year. I enjoy the access to Prism magazine, the numerous conference papers and the access to so many excellent educators. I also appreciate that many divisions have increased the rigor required to publish and that the quality of the work at the conference is continually improving.

Access to the conference and the division members is the best benefit of ASEE. The division for my field of study is very supportive and has created a strong sense of community for those members who choose to participate in division events. I have received invaluable assistance and moral support from division mentors. In addition, the NETI workshops are great. I wonder what ASEE can do so these reach more people?

Outside of work

Outside of work I have two things that absolutely sustain me.

  • Trail running with my dog and friends through the huge network of open spaces around the Bay Area and in the Sierras.
  • Rock climbing in the Sierras with husband, who has been my climbing partner for over 20 years, and our great group of climbing friends.