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Crossing Boundaries in Engineering: From Problem Solving to Building Partnerships 

Date: Thursday September 26, 2013

Speaker: Olga Pierrakos, Ph.D. - Associate Professor of Engineering; Director, Center for Innovation in Engineering Education; Director, Advanced Thermal Fluids Laboratory - James Madison University

Subject: Crossing Boundaries in Engineering: From Problem Solving to Building Partnerships

View the presentation - 5.1 MB PDF


There has been much criticism about undergraduate engineering education not focusing enough on authentic problem solving contexts which are often associated to ill-structured and complex problems. Most engineering programs attempt to provide students with a more authentic engineering experience in the context of a culminating capstone design experience, which can vary from one or two semesters (the most typical models) to three or four semesters (much less typical models). Are engineering programs thus achieving the problem solving needs of industry and preparing adaptive engineers?

Design is widely considered to be the central and distinguishing activity of engineering, a good education in engineering design can give students the skills required to creatively solve real-world problems and create an opportunity for them to begin the process of becoming engineering professionals. At James Madison University, engineering students graduate with 16 credit hours of engineering design coursework, stemming from six-course engineering design sequence, which is the spine of the curriculum. Grounded on an innovative and adaptive problem-based learning (PBL) pedagogical model, as well as being funded by National Science Foundation awards, engineering students are intentionally exposed to a variety of problems – well-defined to ill-defined, simple to complex in terms of knowledge integration, individual to team-based. The goal is to produce engineers who are adaptive problem solvers. This talk with describe the JMU engineering design course sequence, the two-year capstone experience, our PBL model, and key findings from our NSF-funded engineering education research efforts. The hope is that we can better bridge the gap between engineering industry and undergraduate education so that we can work together to produce better prepared and more adaptive engineers, who are globally competitive.

Biographical Information:

Olga Pierrakos, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Engineering
Director, Center for Innovation in Engineering Education
Director, Advanced Thermal Fluids Laboratory
James Madison University

A founding faculty of the new Engineering Department, Dr. Olga Pierrakos has been at James Madison University (JMU) since January 2008. Dr. Pierrakos has taught 10 of the 17 required courses in the program and led the initial development of the six-course engineering design sequence, which is the spine of the curriculum and regarded as one of the most innovative undergraduate engineering design experiences nationwide. In the program, she has also led the assessment efforts, which have received exemplar remarks.

To support her efforts as innovative educator-scholar, she received several National Science Foundation (NSF) awards as principal investigator totaling over $1.5 million, one being the prestigious NSF CAREER Award focused on investigating complex problem-solving in engineering practice and translating real-world problem-solving into the classroom. The latter involves a novel pedagogical model to expose students to different types of problems leading to different modes of cognition. Given that women and minorities are underrepresented in engineering, Dr. Pierrakos also conducts research to understand students' motivations to persist or to leave engineering. She believes that increasing the production of engineers and diversifying the engineering workforce will strengthen our nation's global technological competitiveness. Dr. Pierrakos also conducts research in biomedical engineering and sustainable energy systems. She works with students to characterize the flow past prosthetic heart valves and to design technologies for reducing drag on vehicles. With support from the NSF, she led an effort to establish a state-of-the-art experimental flow diagnostics facility to enable such research. This facility has already impacted hundreds of undergraduate and K-12 students.

In 2013, Dr. Pierrakos was awarded the prestigious State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award in the category of "Rising Star." Dr. Pierrakos has published over 85 peer-refereed publications and presented over 25 invited talks. All her projects involve students and nearly all her publications include students as co-authors. This is testament to empowering her students as the future scientists and engineers.

Dr. Pierrakos immigrated to Richmond from Sparta, Greece with her family in 1988. She holds a B.S. in Engineering Science and Mechanics, a M.S. in Engineering Mechanics, and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Virginia Tech. Faith and family are her cornerstones. She is married to John Karabelas, who teaches in the JMU College of Business, and they have three beautiful sons – Thanasi, Vasili, and Leonidas.

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