Advancing engineering education

Assistant Professor Trevion Henderson aims to improve engineering education and foster diversity, equity, and inclusion through his research and teaching.
Trevion Henderson

Engineers design much of our everyday lives, from cars and computer chips to medical devices and more. These designs and solutions are deeply informed by engineers’ educational and lived experiences. With that in mind, faculty members from across Tufts University are immersed in the study of how we teach and learn STEM subjects, including engineering. With active research ongoing in Tufts School of Engineering academic departments, the Tufts Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI), the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), and Tufts Department of Education, to name just a few hubs, Tufts is a national leader in the study of educational instruction and learning, from kindergarten through college and beyond.

Many Tufts researchers in the area of STEM education focus on the critical work of ensuring that the next generation of engineers receive an education that embodies the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ). They hope to foster inclusive education and learning environments and empower those who have been historically marginalized and excluded from engineering – including Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, women, disabled people, LGBTQ people, first-generation college students, undocumented people, and people from low-income backgrounds – to use their voices and experiences to inform their engineering work.

By Kiely Quinn

Trevion Henderson recalls discussions about making engineering more inclusive dating back to his own high school days. But despite efforts to welcome more people into the field, issues of race, class, and gender inequalities remain prevalent in engineering. Now an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Tufts University with a secondary appointment in the Department of Education, as well as a member of the steering committee for the Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI), Henderson notes that these problems remain “quiet but ever-present.” His work examines and challenges pedagogies in engineering education to bring these concerns out into the open. In doing so, he hopes to reshape conceptions of engineering in ways that are more reflective of a diverse range of knowledge sources and lived experiences.

A newly-minted PhD from the University of Michigan, Henderson joined Tufts School of Engineering in 2021. He earned both his MA in Higher Education and Student Affairs and his BS in Computer Science Engineering from The Ohio State University. “What I learned very quickly was that I wasn’t actually interested in the textbook problems students solve; I was interested in the types of problems that have multiple solutions, each of which has benefits and drawbacks,” says Henderson. His desire to dig deeper into the motivations behind group dynamics and engineering decision-making led him to pursue classroom-based research for his doctoral thesis. As a professor, his research interests have also influenced his current research and his teaching style.

At Tufts, Henderson’s introductory Inventive Design course takes an interdisciplinary approach, weaving together texts from the social sciences, visits from industry professionals, and community engagement to broaden students’ perspectives of engineering design. In tandem with technical content and design projects, the curriculum pushes back against the pervasive view that engineering is purely technical. “Professional practice in general is guided and informed by non-technical issues – things like political issues, social and cultural issues and other dynamics that shape the process,” says Henderson. His approach integrates these non-technical factors into the curriculum at the earliest stages to help students see engineering and design as processes that are deeply intertwined with real-world issues.

Beyond classroom learning, Henderson also creates learning opportunities for students through research. Recalling the impact of his own early involvement in research as an undergraduate student, Henderson is committed to providing research opportunities for students at all levels. With support from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Henderson developed a position for a pedagogical teaching assistant in his Introduction to Computer Engineering course. The role will surpass traditional expectations for a TA position. Pedagogical TA David Zabner, EG20, who is currently pursuing a PhD in STEM Education and earned an MS in Computer Science from Tufts, will work closely with Henderson to plan course activities and perform classroom-based research to evaluate their effectiveness.

Henderson is deeply invested in ensuring that his teaching is impactful. “There are wonderful times where we see students pulling together concepts and it’s not quite right but it’s forming. That’s a clue to us where we need to go in some of our activities, but also a clue about how students are learning,” Henderson says. To that end, he and Zabner will launch a pilot study phase of the course starting in the 2022 fall semester. They will initially focus on how students are absorbing the course activities, but the team ultimately hopes to study whether students are transferring these skills and knowledge to their professional lives.

In addition to working with students, Henderson engaged in several fruitful collaborations with fellow Tufts professors in the past year. “One of the things that made Tufts such an attractive institution is that I knew there were already open conversations about how some of these issues show up, not just in engineering education but writ large across the institution,” he says. Henderson and a group of fellow faculty members including Associate Professor and Dean of Undergraduate Education Chris Swan and McDonnell Family Assistant Professor Greses Pérez, both of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are working on a project related to antiracism in community-centered engineering design. The team hopes to study how antiracism factors into the design process, both within engineering teams and in relation to the broader communities that they serve. Their project would also provide opportunities for students to interact with communities at an earlier stage in their engineering education.

Looking to the future, Henderson believes it’s time to “pull the lens back and think more structurally than we have been in the past” to create more effective and sustainable solutions to racism, classism, and sexism in engineering. “If we don’t address the culture of engineering education, which includes the way we think through problems and the way we address issues in the work that we do, we will never achieve that goal of broadening participation that we’ve been working towards for generations,” he says. Through his research, collaboration, and teaching roles, Henderson aims to help make these structural adjustments at Tufts and beyond.

Learn more about Henderson’s work through his faculty profile.