Digication Scholars Conversations

In this episode of Digication Scholars Conversations, join host Jeff Yan as he speaks with Rebecca Thomas, Director of the Pathways ePortfolio Program at Bucknell University.

They delve into the concept of holistic learning in engineering, the importance of integrating technical and human aspects, and the role of ePortfolios in helping students navigate their educational journeys.

Discover how engineers can positively impact society and how the field is evolving to embrace a broader view of problem-solving. 

Don't miss this inspiring conversation.
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#HolisticLearning #EngineeringEducation #ePortfolios #STEM #SocietalImpact #ProblemSolving #PathwaysProgram #BucknellUniversity #MakeLearningVisible

What is Digication Scholars Conversations?

Digication Scholars Conversations...

Welcome to Digication
Scholars Conversations.

I'm your host, Jeff Yan.

In this episode, you will hear part one
of my conversation with Rebecca Thomas,

director of the Pathways ePortfolio
program and adjunct assistant professor

of the Electrical and Computer Engineering
department at Bucknell University more

links and information about today's
conversation can be found on Digication's

Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Full episodes of Digication Scholars
Conversations can be found on

YouTube or your favorite podcast app.

Welcome to Digication
Scholars Conversations!

I'm your host, Jeff Yan.

My guest today is Rebecca Thomas, Director
of the Pathway ePortfolio Program and

Adjunct Assistant Professor of the
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Department at Bucknell University.

Hello, Rebecca.

Uh, so nice to have you here on
Digication Scholars Conversations.

You are, um, amongst your colleague, uh,
Joe Tranquillo, who was in our season

two, episode 25, um, we had a wonderful,
wonderful conversation then, and, um,

I'm glad that you can join us now.

And I know that actually there are a few
other Bucknell colleagues of yours that

we'll be talking to as well, cause you're
all just doing really incredible work.

Uh, welcome.

Thank you.

So, um, Rebecca, you're, um, the director
of the Pathways ePortfolio Program.

Do you want to just right away
talk about like what that means?

What's Pathways?

For those who might be listening,
may have some idea, but not

really a hundred percent sure
what you, what, what that means?


So, um, Pathways is Bucknell's ePortfolio,
or University wide ePortfolio initiative.


Um, it's a fairly new program at Bucknell.

We've just, it rolled
out, um, two years ago.

So we have two years of the program.

Um, yeah, and so it has a lot of
goals for students to kind of take

control of their own learning, right?

To integrate all their great
experiences that they have when they

come to a school like Bucknell, you
know, and think holistically about

They're learning and who they are.

Um, and we focus that mostly in the,
in the development of the ePortfolio.

Um, when you say think holistic about,
you know, themselves, um, I know that,

I mean, of course, talk, having talked
to Joe and for people who haven't,

haven't, um, heard that I highly recommend
you listen to Joe's, um, conversation

as well, because he's a master of.

Uh, Metacognition and Reflections,
and he comes from this really

interesting diverse background.

Um, and one of the things that I often
want to talk to people about is a

lot of people say holistic learning.

Develop as a whole, you know,
human and all of this stuff.


So in your, in your vision of this
as a director of this and you, your

vision, what does that really mean when
a student, you know, like practically

if I'm a, if I'm a parent sending
a student to Bucknell, now you are

telling your, your student, your,
your child is gonna be holistically

learning about themselves, right?

And being developed in that way.

What does that really
mean in practical terms?


So, I mean, I mentioned.

Like Bucknell students
are, are very involved.

They do a lot of things
around campus, right?

Going to classes is just one of them.

Um, so, so part of the holistic
experience, right, is that

they're involved in lots
of different organizations.

Uh, it's a very residential
campus, so most of our students.

live together and, um, uh,
work together outside of class.

So, they have all these
experiences to bring in.

Um, also, personally, I come from the
STEM background where a lot of times,

um, right, the technical part is really
focused on and, right, there's this Even

though we know, like, technology has,
has human aspects, right, we, we tend to

think we can separate those and ignore
the human part and really we can't.

So, you know, coming from STEM, I think
not ignoring the human part, also not

ignoring, like, the humanities is really
important because, um, right, we're,

you know, we're all trying to solve
these Bigger, more complex, relevant

to society problems, and we need a
bigger lens, a bigger view to do that.

So, so we need to think about lots of
aspects of the problem, not only the

technical, but the human side and how it
overlaps with other aspects, the social,

the political, the economic, to come
up with real plausible solutions to.

These problems that we're facing.I think
that's, that's really, that's really

awesome and really great to see, you know,
like, I think that it's been, it's no

secret to many people that if you're going
into the STEM fields, you yourself are

in the engineering and, and computer, um,
electrical and in computer, um, you know,

engineering department, um, a lot of folks
have this, this, um, View that in a STEM

field, you do everything is very black and
white, is very right or wrong, you have

the answer, you don't have the answer.

I wish it was like that,
it would be a lot easier.

So that's, that's wrong, right?

That's the wrong way to look at it.

So I think that's actually
a really, um, interesting.

That's a really interesting
thing that you're saying because

I've had so many colleagues.

Of course, I know a lot of my
work is involved around portfolio.

Many of the schools that we have
worked with, um, I've known these

folks for a long time, and they, many
of them have this, um, idea that.

It's much easier to do ePortfolio
because it's touchy feely.

It's, you know, talking about
reflection and, and that you can

do it easier in the arts, in the
humanities, um, but not in STEM.

They think that STEM, you know,
Oh, of course, we're not going

to be doing STEM programs.

That's harder.

That's not the low hanging fruit.

What do you say to that?

Because I don't think
that that's justified.

Do you?


I mean, and I think, you know,
naturally, like some of the historical

ways that ePortfolios have been used
and kind of where they started was.

more for the professional programs.

Um, right.

So, like, nursing and education are, um,
big fields for you portfolios, right?

And engineering in some sense
of a, of what we do is a very

professional, um, professional
degree, professional path, right?

We are educating the students that we
that we have to, to be engineers, right?

That's, there's a wide variety of
engineers you can be, and we're

actually trying to push on and
expand that with, with what I'm

doing in my department and what we
believe ePortfolios can do for STEM.

majors, right?

But I think you have
that traditional view.

So it's interesting at Bucknell, it's,
you know, engineers are actually leading

the way with our ePortfolio initiative.

Um, particularly my department
in electrical and computer

engineering has already tried it
in, I think, six different courses.

Uh, we're looking to Create a new
course that we want students to actually

enroll in every single semester.

It'll be a small portion, right?

So it adds up to a whole course
over their eight semesters.

But we want students to do this so
that they can think about and, and

narrate and document their experience
the whole way through their curriculum

and, you know, bring in The other
parts of, you know, it won't be, it

won't be a very technical course.

So, so the, the things they're
pulling, the experiences they're

thinking about in their ePortfolio
should come, you know, from a wide

range of, of what they're doing as,
as different parts of their education.


I, I really think that it, it's
potentially more important than

what people are even thinking
about, because I think that.

Engineers today, and I, I know in the
field of, for example, in computer

engineering, and especially in the sort of
subfield of the artificial intelligence,

um, this very idea of understanding
societal issues, understanding ethics,

understanding values, and how to,
how to think empathetically, right?

How to, how to, um, Implement,
Respect in society, right?

These are kind of things that an
engineer could have tremendous power.

They can wield, they can, the, the
things that they, the decisions that

they make, the approach that they take
into solving a problem could have lots

of unintended consequences down the road,
if they are not careful and carefully.

Thinking through these
implications, don't you?

Yeah, um, I think that's definitely, uh,
you know, engineers can have a lot of

impact, they often have a lot of power.

Um, right.

But some engineers and some engineering
students don't want to think about those

larger aspects they want to, or, well, and
sometimes that's the training is like you,

you do what you're told and you don't.

Mm hmm.



So there's that.



So there's that, you know,
that, that wanting things to

be black and white, right.

You're, your client tells you to do this,
if your consultant or your boss tells you

to do this and, and you deliver, right.

You don't ask.


Why, you know, you don't think about
the broader implications sometimes.


And I think that in, in many ways, um, you
know, I, I, I hear this a lot, by the way,

I used to be, um, the school that I used
to teach at and there's an art and design

school at Rhode Island School of Design.

And, and I used to hear this a little bit.

This is quite interesting.

I think, um, like we have a film
department and a lot of the People

that make films from that department
would make films that they don't look

like, um, you know, what you see in the
movies because they are very abstract.

Sometimes they're like, what
is this like crazy idea?

You know, technically they're not perfect.

You know what I mean?

Um, and.

And I remember talking to someone and
going, so do they, do they, they come out

of the school having the skills to go in
and make films and they go, and sometimes

you go, well, sometimes, yeah, sometimes
now they really need to still then learn

an industry and like learn the ropes.

But what you will find is that
there are also some film schools

that are highly technical.

You know, by the time they graduate,
they, they just know how to shoot a

film, um, technically, but they haven't
explored in how to tell the story.

They haven't explored on some of the more
abstract, higher level sort of thinking.


If you then fast forward 10 years,
the people that came out having all

of the technical skills are still
doing the same job that requires

all of the technical skills.

Actually, our students are the ones
that, in some ways, because they

don't have those technical skills.

They kind of have to sort of,
you know, go in a path of, we're

just going to make the movie.

We're going to have to hire people
to have the technical skills.

And they ended up leading, they ended
up becoming the directors of the

movies and the creators of the shows.

Um, isn't that kind of interesting?



And I, I think in engineering,
like we, we definitely can't

ignore those technical skills.

We definitely need to equip our
students to have those, but right.

We can teach those.

And so let's think about the
context, right, and, and think

about integrating them and
transferring them more, um, right.

Sometimes in engineering we get so focused
on everything has to be technical and

they need to go so deep in the technical,
yet, right, the field advances so quickly

and, and the variety of things that
students go out to do is, is so wide that

they're going to have to learn some of
that technical, Um, Aspects on the job.

So, right.

So a lot of what we're doing.

Right, is, is giving them the skills
to, to be able to learn those aspects.

Um, yeah, but we do see kind of the
same thing with, you know, engineers

that have these broader skills,
right, they're going to be the ones

that move up and they're going to be.

The ones who are, um, kind of supervisors
or project managers, they're not going

to stay in those technical jobs, usually.

And do you see in your experience
difference between this?

Current generation of students that
are from your program because they are

being exposed to these, you know, like
the humanities and the purposes of,

you know, in, in the society and so on.

Do you see a difference between them and
I don't know, students who haven't been

exposed to that, including perhaps I'm,
I'm perhaps making assumptions here, but.

You know, maybe your own personal
experience, or, you know, students

that you've seen in your own education
experiences, maybe classmates,

when you were a student who may not
have been exposed to those things.

Do you see a difference between them?

Um, yeah, I think mostly in kind of
what we've talked about in their,

in their kind of longer term path.

Um, and I would like to see
it kind of earlier on, right.

But a lot of people still graduate wanting
to go to those big programs, wanting to

be at the Google and the Microsoft and,
um, yeah, and not, not thinking, I'd love

to see students think even more broadly
about, all right, I have an engineering

degree, what, what good can I do with
it or what, you know, what can I do with

it too that really interests me and.

It's something that I care about.


It could be anything from, you know,
creating justice in society to solving

impossible problems such as, you know,
clean water or, or, um, or, or, or,

or curing, you know, a deadly disease,
um, or figuring out how to apply

those skills that you have to mental
health and, and things like that.


You know, so in other words,
almost like opening up the.

The possibility.

So it's not, yes, if you get an, if you're
an engineer, if you're qualified, you

know, those jobs at Google and Microsoft
sounds pretty prestigious, cushy, you

know, like that, that would be it.

Like that, that's when my
parents, you know, would be happy.

I think that that's what my
parents would have wanted me to do.

When I was, when I was
coming up, I didn't do it.

It was a disappointment
to them in that regard.

Um, what was your, what
was your story like?

Um, I mean, you also studied,
you know, engineering and how

did you end up at Bucknell?


So, you know, I think early I went
in being an engineer who wanted

to make the world a better place.


Make, make things better for people.

And I spent four years in undergrad
and kind of graduated and didn't

know how to make that happen.

I had no idea.

Where to go from there.

So let me pause for a minute there.

Okay, because I think this
is really interesting.

It really is.

So you got a four year
undergraduate degree at that point.

Is it right to say that you probably at
least feel like you've gained some skills?

You got the technical skills?

So you knew, you knew
how to solve a problem.

If someone said, here's a problem, go
solve it in your, you know, in your area

of study, but you still feel like that.

I don't know how to get a
job that would pay the bills.

I didn't know how to do something
that would really be fulfilling.

And that's, by the way, a
huge part of this generation.

I think that, I think you're a bit
younger than me, but when I was growing

up, you know, like fulfillment was a,
a very luxurious thing to have, like,

you don't get to have that and pay
the bills at the same time, you know,

you just kind of, you know, get a job.

And you'll get fulfilled in other
ways, you know, once you make money,

you know, you, you'll get fulfilled.

Um, but it's not true.

It's not true.

In fact, um, many people have made lots of
money and I know a lot of them in Silicon

Valley that they actually, in fact, made
disproportionate amount of money, money,

amount of money that they didn't know what
to do with and still feel an incredible

sense of emptiness in the sense of.

Depression, some of them.

In fact, they felt like that, now that
I've reached the end, I'm supposed

to see the rainbow and the rainbow is
nowhere to be found, you know, but yeah,

I decided though, since I didn't know
professionally how to, how to change

things that I would educate future
engineers that hopefully could then have

more opportunities to, to change things.

Right, and being an educator is a nice
place to, like, continually be able to.

Do that to influence the, you
know, the next up and coming

engineers over and over again.

Yeah, I think that's,
it's, it's, it's amazing.

Cause I think that this is exactly the
kind of, um, both the modeling, but

the thought process that allows you to.

Direct a program that has that inherently,
you know, built into, into, into the

concepts of how you structure things.

Even just one that you talked about,
which is this idea of a cross that's

going to span across eight semesters.

They're going to do a little work
every semester, but it's always going

to remind them, hey, where's your
True North, whereas you are, where,

what is going to keep driving you as
you gain more and more skills, right?

Now, you know how to create
something in a database.

Now, you're creating some code.

Now, you can do this logic
that you couldn't do before.

Now, you're doing, you know, artificial
intelligence, machine learning, etc.

But where's your true North and are
you still pointing in that direction?

I think that's amazing.


But, I mean, and there are
a lot of students too, like

first generation students.

I was a first gen, right?

So I came in not, not knowing where
my north was, not knowing where to go.


I think it is a balance though
of, of guiding the students

who, who need help finding it.

But, but yeah, also kind of
continually doing that because you

change a lot in your four years.


are in university.

So, thinking about what it is that you
want to do, how, how has that changed?

Is it changing?

Are you still focused on?

I guess I was still focused on
my goal to make the world better.

Yeah, but in ways that you
didn't think was even a possible

path when you first started.

And I will share that I'm also a first
gen college attendee in my family.

And, um, I would say that,
um, even forget, I don't know

where the true, true North is.

I didn't even know you were
supposed to have a North.

Do you know what I mean?

It's, it's maybe the, the only
North for, for me, conceptually

would have just been to survive.

You know, just be like, be,
be able to pay the bills.

That was, that was about it.

Get a degree, get a job.


Just a little bit of.


Degree, job, and then
you can figure it out.


I think that's too late.

I think that it feels too late.

Don't you?


Well, at least not very efficient, right?

You know, you're missing out on a
lot of what education can provide

if you're very focused on that.

And I think that this is actually a
really good, um, place for me to talk

about sort of just education in general.

Because, um, I have spoken
with a lot of folks.

In this very, you know, Digication
Scholars Conversations, right?

And they're from different
fields and whatnot.

And they would oftentimes have to defend,
you know, folks that are in liberal arts,

folks that are in the arts, you know,
especially, they have to defend that,

you know, this is a viable path because
you're learning to be a better human.

Um, Oftentimes, comparing to if
you're an engineer, because like

you said, there is this sort of pre
established path that is pretty cushy.

It's, well, I don't, it's never easy
by the way, but it seems easier.

It seems more laid out for you, right?

The path is there.

You can follow the steps and if you're,
if you're pretty decent, you can do it.

You can do it just like someone else had
done and just kind of, that's it, right?

And then you could be in this.

You know, position of a multiple six
figure job with, you know, lunch and

dinner covered and, and dry cleaning
also done, you know, for you, et cetera.

It's kind of like, it
sounds amazing, you know.


And, uh, but, but I think that, um,
like what you were saying to find

a fulfillment, that may not be it.

And that actually, regardless of
which field you're going into, that

fulfillment, you still need to work
at it and search for it and then, and

then exercise somehow to get there.


And that's not different for an engineer
versus, um, you know, a dance major.

Don't you think?


And I think it's probably
easier as an engineer to, to not

realize that part's important.


Because the other path
is so, it's, it's there.

It's, it's like, in fact, that's the,
uh, dare I say, you know, more the norm,

societal norm, if, if anything, you know.

Um, and cause it's, it's, uh, It's
both elusive, but you know, cause it's

there, you can sort of just catch it,
but it's also very seductive because

it's like, I want that, you know?

Like if you are a student, you'll be
like, that, that sounds pretty good.

You know, having a lot of money,
having a lot of resources.

Um, people are taking vacations
all the time, you know, what's

not like kind of situation, right?


And having, you know, having the
stability, which I think is a,

is a big benefit of engineering.

It does give you the stability to do
things, to do the other things you want

with the money that you have and hopefully
the time that you have, you know, when

you're, when you're not doing that,
but when you're not working, but, um.

But yeah, I still think if you're, I still
think you can, you can miss out on a lot.

And I think one other things that, one
other thing that, um, a lot of people

have, um, probably the, the, sort of
the wrong view of the STEM field and

engineers especially, you know, do, and,
and perhaps even engineers themselves,

is that, You know, many people think
of engineers are the experts at problem

solvers, you know, you have a problem.

We'll engineer our way out of it.

We'll engineer a solution.

But I think that sort of true
to how you were talking about,

you know, if they're exposed to.

You know, societal issues, if they're
exposed to what's the most important

things in the world today, um, be
it climate change or, you know,

superintelligence, you know, AI, you
know, and possible future pandemics that

is even more deadly than COVID, right?

All of these areas,
actually, perhaps less.

So then, uh, being a great problem
solver, you have to be a great

sort of identifier of problems.

And that's, uh, hugely under, sort of
represented part of engineering, I feel.

Um, even, like I said, even to engineers
themselves, because many students are

like, I've been trained for 12 years
before coming to Bucknell, you know, in

high school and whatnot to solve problems.

I'm really good at it.


If they come to a school like Bucknell,
they're probably pretty good at

whatever they were doing already.



And so I'm really good at doing that.

I'm just great at solving problems.

But the engineer's field,
to me, is very incomplete.

And that's why you don't get that
fulfillment if you're also not able to,

to be the one who instigate the problems.

Yeah, and that's a big part of
what we do in our design thread

and, and our department, um,
especially with senior design, right?

And students get a senior design
problem, they, they just want to start

making the solution right away, right?

They've got an idea.

Maybe within five minutes how
they're going to solve it and

they want to start building it.

Um, but we make them take almost our
senior design is a year long course.

They take it both semesters.

So we make them spend almost the
entire first semester actually

going out and figuring out more
about what the problem is, right?

We, they have to interview people
and talk to people and really.

Define the problem and, and figure
out what's all involved before

they're allowed to propose a
solution and start working on it.


Um, seems like, uh, you know,
what's interesting is that

there's something about.

And I don't know whether I'm, you know,
being overly generalizing here, but,

um, I think there's almost something
about sort of a, uh, almost a lot of

typical gender, um, differences as well.

A lot of men loves to go into, you
know, if they hear a problem, they

want to just go and do the solution.



You may not be looking for a solution yet.

The one thing we covered in,
like, counseling before we got

married is men typically want
to, like, solve your problem.

Husbands do.

The wives, like, typically want to
be heard and talk about the problem.


We have to I mean, it's, uh, engineering,
especially in a lot of the STEM field is

heavily still today dominated by sort of,
uh, you know, by male participants, but,

but to me, it's not just the participants.

It's also the ideas, it's the approach
that are very masculine, um, in a,

in a, in a, in a, in a bad way, in
a, in a way that doesn't balance

like what you just said, which is.

Hey, look, we got to spend almost, if
not the same amount of time on asking

the questions before you just go into
the solution, you know, part of this.



And I think, you know, one of the
big keys to, to addressing these

problems are to get closer to
equity within the field, right?

Have more women representation.

And, and there are lots of other
underrepresented groups, not just

women, but, right, um, has, have more
diversity and, Have you seen that?

Yeah, I mean, it's, it's definitely
a big push here and some departments

do better than others, uh, you know,
I think it's, it's just based on kind

of where, where the field is, um, But,
yeah, I think, though, you know, we

have come a long way in a hundred years.

Bucknell graduated its first female
engineer, um, a hundred years ago,

like, mid May we celebrated that.


So that, that was, that's awesome.

And, you know, there are a lot more women
here than there were, but also it's been

a hundred years and like we haven't made
as much progress as we should have, right?

We're still maybe 10, 20
percent in some departments.

Um, right.

So, uh, you know, I think we need to.

Think about the framework that we're
working in, and, uh, you know, the stories

that we tell in ePortfolios, I, I think
it's a good way to, to widen this view

of what is, what is an engineer, right?

It does have this fairly narrow,
typical identity that we define to it.


And if, but if we can think more broadly
about who can be an engineer and what

they might do, what they're interested
in, right, that they shouldn't think

about the problem and think about the
human aspects, um, Yeah, I think those

kind of big changes need to be happening
along with, uh, the recruitment and that.