Educating the next generation of engineers

McDonnell Family Bridge Professor Milo Koretsky reflects on the growth of engineering education research.
Professor Milo Koretsky

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

When Milo Koretsky made a mid-career switch from chemical engineering to researching engineering education, some colleagues told him the move would be a career ender. Since that time, the field of engineering education research has grown exponentially, and after joining Tufts University in 2021, Koretsky now holds joint appointments in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Department of Education as the McDonnell Family Bridge Professor. He is also the co-director of the Tufts Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI), where he conducts research to improve engineering education and “influences how the next generation of engineers think.”

Before he came to Tufts, Koretsky worked in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. He earned his PhD in Chemical Engineering at University of California at Berkeley and his MS and BS in Chemical Engineering at University of California, San Diego. After earning his degrees, Koretsky spent several years doing thin film materials processing research and collaborating with tech companies on microelectronics manufacturing.

Through his educational journey and informed by his industry collaborations, Koretsky realized that faculty often lacked the pedagogical skills to support students’ deep learning of engineering concepts and practices. To address this situation, Koretsky developed the Concept Warehouse , a tool with resources for educators to improve their teaching practices in chemical engineering. “Instructors often misinterpret having a student be able to complete an algorithmic problem with understanding the concept, so students learn procedures and processes, but they’re really just pattern recognizing,” says Koretsky. The Concept Warehouse encourages students to engage more conceptually with the content to elicit deeper learning.

The tool fosters more equitable classroom experiences as well. Problems are assigned in the Concept Warehouse and professors can choose students’ written responses to share with the full class. This feature addresses the challenges that students whose voices have historically been marginalized in engineering may face in speaking up during classroom discussions. “In that context, the voice becomes what’s in that written explanation, not who’s sitting in the front row,” Koretsky says. Additionally, the Concept Warehouse team works with a range of institutions, including research- and teaching-intensive universities, minority-serving institutions, and community colleges, to ensure that its tools can be utilized effectively across a diverse range of educational environments, and to learn how context influences instruction and learning.

Beyond the Concept Warehouse, Koretsky uses his research to ensure that his courses at Tufts are as educationally valuable as possible. His curriculum aims to facilitate student learning and make diversity and inclusion assets in engineering group work. He instills these values by using realistic, open-ended projects. “When you have uncertainty and you can choose multiple paths, then folks with different perspectives become valued resources,” he says. While problems with more straightforward solutions encourage students to organize around a single ‘leader’, the ambiguity of Koretsky’s assignments emphasize a more egalitarian group structure and are more reflective of real-world engineering scenarios. Moving beyond a dichotomy of right and wrong allows different life experiences and forms of expertise to become important components in engineering work.

The Tufts Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI) which is composed of eight core faculty members, four each from the School of Engineering and School of Arts and Sciences provides a similar diversity of perspectives and experiences at the faculty level. “When you work with educators within your own discipline, you tend to get locked into a certain paradigmatic way of thinking,” says Koretsky. Collaborating with professors across disciplines broadens the researchers’ perspectives and allows them to think beyond the specificities of their own field. Koretsky cites IRLI as a main reason he was attracted to Tufts, as it is a standout university-level structure working to integrate Tufts’ mission of teaching with its mission of research.

Within IRLI, Koretsky has engaged in numerous projects and collaborations with Tufts faculty members and beyond. Koretsky and Professor Jeffrey Nason of Oregon State University are currently working together on a project studying how students engage in lab projects in both virtual and real-life environments, collaborating with Tufts colleagues like advisory board member Greses Pérez, McDonnell Family Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The project will use industrially situated virtual labs a simulation technology that imitates a real-world work environment, which Koretsky developed to increase student exposure to authentic lab experiences.

The group will record students completing tasks in virtual and physical labs and study the footage to find areas where students were confused. They will then interview the students about the challenging aspects of their experience to learn more about their decision-making processes in those moments and compare the respective benefits and drawbacks of virtual and physical labs. This kind of research will help professors to develop curriculum that better addresses students’ needs and adequately prepares them for the working world.

Across his research and teaching, Koretsky’s goal of enhancing student learning and creating meaningful educational resources remains his driving force. Looking forward, Koretsky plans to expand the Concept Warehouse’s offerings into new content areas beyond chemical engineering and the recently-added mechanical engineering. Through research and collaborations at IRLI, he will continue to iterate on and improve educational offerings at Tufts.

Reflecting on the growth of engineering education research over the last several years, Koretsky says, “Universities like Tufts are ramping up in this area. It’s a legitimate area of scholarship and the community sees the value, but I didn’t have those lofty expectations when I started. I just wanted some evidence-based methods to see what my learning system was doing and how it could do it better.”

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