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Student concerns spur MECH changes

By Amber Tong     8/23/16 11:19pm

The mechanical engineering department has taken steps this summer to address understaffing and underfunding issues, following student complaints at a town hall organized by undergraduates in the spring. In addition to hiring four new faculty members, the department will also restructure some lab courses and work with a newly founded undergraduate advisory council to improve the student experience.

In April, students expressed concerns about the lack of full-time faculty, which limits student-teacher interaction as well as research opportunities, and the under-resourcing of the laboratories. At the time, mechanical engineering, the second largest major by enrollment in the engineering division with about 190 students, had only nine tenured/tenure-track and one full-time non-tenure-track faculty.

The total number has since changed to 13, as one professor left at the end of last school year. The four new faculty consist of non-tenure-track lecturer Eleazar Marquez, tenured professor Fred Higgs and tenure-track assistant professors Matthew Brake and Pedram Hassanzadeh. They will assume their duties in the fall, conducting research and supervising graduate students, but only Marquez will be teaching. Higgs is also the new faculty director of the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership.

Department chair Laura Schaefer said while the department has not solved every problem, she believes it is moving in the right direction.

“We are making great progress, especially if the department faculty continues to grow, and the student enrollment doesn’t increase too dramatically in the next four to five years,” Schaefer said.

Marquez, a recent doctoral graduate from the mechanical engineering department and an experienced teaching assistant, said he is excited to build on the relationship he has with students to mentor them and expand research opportunities

“One of the reasons I got hired was to help students,” Marquez said. “And not only that, but [to] mentor students. It takes somebody to tell you, ‘You can do it,’ or ‘How about you take this route,’ or ‘Are you interested in research, I think you have the potential to do it.’”

According to Schaefer, the department had trouble recruiting full time teachers in previous years because funding from the administration often came late and with conditions.

“In past years, that money has come at the last minute and the dean’s office has been [saying] you have to spend it exactly on this,” Schaefer said. “This year the money came early and the dean’s office said, ‘Hey, you do what you need to do to have a more effective teaching strategy.’”

According to Provost Marie Lynn Miranda, the provost’s office receives a school-level request for instructional funding based on what deans have learned from their departments regarding teaching needs. It then allocates resources for additional sections, labs or courses with high enrollments .

“We always try to be flexible in responding to the changing landscape in all of our schools and departments,” Miranda said.

The department did not receive any additional funding after the town hall.

Drew Petty, the president of Rice’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers chapter who organized the town hall in spring, said hiring Marquez demonstrates the town hall’s success and addresses the department’s immediate, but not long-term, needs.

“The state of the MECH department has improved, but it’s still a long way away from to Rice standards,” Petty, a Duncan College senior, said. “This batch of hiring needs to be the first of many steps toward improvement.”

In response to the concern that lab groups are too large and inefficient, Schaefer said department staff will also test out ways to reduce the number of students assigned to each lab group for conducting experiments. This effort involves two different methods: Fixing old equipment to increase the types of experiments students can conduct and dividing students into groups that rotate between experiments to ensure more students actually gain hands-on experience.

Nonetheless, factors such as classroom facilities, storage space and equipment still strain the department’s ability to fully catch up with the growth in student population, Schaefer said. She addressed the issue of size in some of the departmental information sessions during Orientation Week, attended by around 90 to 100 students.

“Obviously I love this major, so I am still going to give the pep talk about mechanical engineering, but we also need to let them know that this is what they are getting into,” Schaefer said. “You are not going to get six-people seminars.”

Moving forward, Schaefer expects to work with the advisory board to keep up with concerns.

“Students making their voices known is a really useful thing,” she said. “It’s not that any of [the school’s] actions are malicious, it’s just not necessarily understanding what the challenges are.”

The student advisory board’s first goal is to push to administration to continue the trend of hiring and keep an open dialogue with the department according to member Preston Hill.

“The current batch of hires represents the administration and department preparing for the retirement of several professors,” Hill, a Duncan College senior, said. “We need the trend to continue in order to see more permanent results.”

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