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Tufts University
Medford, MA 02155

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Kristen Bethke Wendell
McDonnell Family Professor in Engineering Education
Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering


Ph.D., Science Education, Tufts University, 2011
M.S., Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT, 2005
B.S.E., Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Princeton University, 2003

Short Biography

Kristen Wendell earned her Ph.D. in science education from Tufts University and her M.S. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. She received her B.S. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University. Wendell joined Tufts from her role as faculty at University of Massachusetts Boston's Center of Science and Mathematics in Context where she was awarded two NSF grants: one, a CAREER award, on the use of community-based engineering to prepare novice urban elementary school teachers in science and engineering; and the other on supporting urban students' engineering discourse. In 2016 she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) by the U.S. government.

Research Interests

My research area is engineering education. Broadly stated, my research group studies learning and teaching dynamics in a range of engineering learning environments. My interests follow three lines of questioning. (1) What is the range of discourse practices required to participate fully in engineering, and how can students and their instructors be supported in engaging deeply in engineering discourse? (2) How are undergraduate engineering students and elementary teachers similar and different in how they learn to design? (3) What characterizes "responsive" teaching in engineering, how does it influence productive disciplinary engagement in engineering, and in what ways is it similar and different across the undergraduate and elementary levels? The rationale for all three of these strands is to understand the barriers that various learners (from children to undergraduates to elementary teachers) face in gaining broader access to – and more sophisticated engagement in – the engineering discipline. The eventual goals are twofold. First, we want to design supports (including educational technologies) for easier access and more sophisticated engineering practice. Second, we aim to broaden society's understanding of what it means to participate in engineering, and who can participate.

For the first main area of research, on discourse practices in engineering, I am currently collaborating with Dr. Pat Paugh (UMass Boston) and Dr. Chris Wright (University of Tennessee Knoxville) to create a framework for the communication patterns (ways of talking, listening, writing, drawing) that are necessary for collaborative engineering design in elementary classrooms. For example, we look at the language of cause-effect explanations required to propose a design solution to teammates, and the language of argumentation with evidence required to critique someone else's proposed solution. We have tested this engineering discourse model with data from urban elementary classrooms. Data from the problem-solving interactions of undergraduate engineering students further informs this model. With PhD student Chelsea Andrews (Tufts), we are also developing various strategies and tools (including educational technologies) to support students' engineering discourse. We study which supports, in which contexts, are more successful.

My second area of research involves coaching prospective teachers to solve engineering design problems found in their schools' local communities. Collaborators on this Community Based Engineering project are Dr. Tejaswini Dalvi (UMASS Boston) and Jessica Swenson (Tufts). As part of an effort to insure that new teachers are well prepared to incorporate engineering into their classrooms, we are documenting the evolution of these teachers' engineering design practices and beginning to identify areas where they diverge from undergraduate engineering students' design learning trajectories. This work also includes developing assessment instruments as well as technologies to help elementary teachers learn to design, including a Portable Maker Studio that can be transported to and from their classrooms.

For my third strand of research, the focus is on engineering teaching. Research on "responsive" teaching in science and math (e.g., Levin, Hammer, Elby, & Coffey, 2012) has revealed that when science and math teachers elicit and pay close attention to the substance of students' thinking (their scientific reasoning; their mathematical strategies) and respond specifically to that thinking in their teaching, student learning outcomes can be improved. In close collaboration with Dr. Jessica Watkins and Dr. Aaron Johnson at the Tufts CEEO, I am exploring whether we can similarly characterize what responsive teaching in engineering looks like at all levels.

Professional Positions

January 2016-present Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Tufts University School of Engineering
January 2016-present Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Education, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences
September 2011-December 2015 Assistant Professor, UMass Boston, College of Education and Human Development and Center of Science and Mathematics in Context
June 2006-June 2011 Research Assistant, Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach
June – August 2005 Science and Technology Policy Fellow, National Academy of Engineering
September 2003-May 2006 Research Assistant, MIT Man Vehicle Lab

Service Memberships

  • Engineering Research Interest Group Board Member,
  • National Association of Research in Science Teaching (NARST)
  • Faculty Fellow, Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach
  • Steering Committee, National Academy of Engineering Engineer Girl program
  • Advisor, WIPRO Science Education Fellowship

Selected Honors and Awards

  • Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), 2016
  • National Science Foundation CAREER Award, 2013
  • International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS) Doctoral Consortium Fellow, 2010
  • Service Leadership Award, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006
  • National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2003
  • Princeton Hayes-Palmer Prize in Engineering, 2003


ME0149: Design for Engineering Education, a graduate-level course exploring research-based approaches to the design of engineering learning experiences.