Evelyn Wang became the head of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering last summer. An internationally recognized leader in phase change heat transfer on nanostructure surfaces, Wang’s research focuses on high-efficiency energy and water systems. Her work on solar cells that convert heat into focused beams of light was named one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 breakthrough technologies of 2017.
Q: Why did you have to address the educational models at MIT’s mechanical engineering department in the first place?
E.W: I think we have a really nice balance where we focus on in-depth analytical skills (and) the fundamentals, as well as project-based learning with hands-on experiences. But I think we always need to think about how we refresh our curriculum so that we can continue to prepare our students in this day and age with the advent of new technologies and a lot of digital tools
Q: What are the major fundamental differences between today’s freshmen MEs at MIT and their counterparts five to 10 years ago?
E.W: Our students coming in as freshmen are probably more prepared than five to 10 years ago. There’s a lot more offered at the high school levels, such as in robotics and computer programming, that allows them to address problems. A lot of them already have had hands-on machining-type training.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you are changing the way you teach as well as changing the curriculum?
E.W: Our well-known robotics competition
was (always) very focused on mechanical design. Now we have this class which deals with the programming of the microprocessors so that they rely on sensors to do whatever the task is for this robot competition. There is an integration of software and programming.
Q: I assume those new initiatives also tie into AI, Big Data, and other subjects that will be taught at MIT’s new College of Computing?
E.W: Yes, absolutely. When we think about our curriculum we have actively been thinking about the role of computing and how that has become important in terms of how we teach our students and to give them the skill set that they need, so they are ready for the workforce when they graduate.
Q: How do you think the department will change the way it educates young engineers by the time you move on or retire?
E.W: You can imagine that we could potentially have a lot more flipped-type classrooms, where we have some classes where you take a lecture before real class time and then the class with a lot more interaction, more Q&A, more demonstration. In the longer term, we may have artificial professors. You can have robots teach things that are more defined, while real humans can then think about more creative elements that are outside of the box and more difficult for AI-trained robots to do.
Q: In 2016, the breakdown of STEM undergrads was about 37 percent female and 63 percent male, but about 43 percent of MIT graduates are women. Are there any new types of strategies that other schools should use to attract more female engineers?
EW: In our undergraduate population in mechanical engineering we’re pretty much at gender parity
. We’re about 50 percent. There are a few things we’ve done that we think are really important. The first is that exposing women to engineering doesn’t just start at the college level, it starts during their learning from K through 12. One of the things that we’ve offered for many years now is a program called WTP Women’s Technology Program, where we allow high-school females to come and get exposed to what mechanical engineering is at MIT. Hopefully, those kind of exposures are important to them that they get excited about it. They see that engineering is not just for men and that they can excel in it.
Jeff O’Heir is a senior content manager at ASME.org.
to the full interview with Evelyn Wang in the latest episode of the ASME TechCast
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