Graduate student bridges yoga with engineering education

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Janet Tsai

Graduate
PhD
Mechanical Engineering

As a yoga instructor, Janet Tsai teaches her students to find equilibrium by feeling it.

It’s a concept that she thinks may work for engineering students as well—and help to transform the culture of engineering so that it appeals to a broader, more diverse range of people.

Tsai is a third-year PhD student in mechanical engineering at CU-Boulder who is conducting research on engineering education with a goal of attracting and retaining more women and underrepresented minorities in the field. In fall 2012, she plans to introduce some new teaching techniques in the sophomore-level Statics and Structures course, in collaboration with assistant professor Michael Hannigan.

Instead of trying to grasp Newton’s Third Law of Motion through the typical examples of planes, trains, and baseballs, she says, why not think about engineering concepts using our own bodies as our guide?

 “In yoga, we are constantly talking about engineering concepts like force, momentum, and energy and feeling these concepts embodied through movement and breath,” Tsai writes on her website (www.forcesinyoga.com).  “If we can take even a fraction of this tangible understanding into an engineering classroom and teach students these concepts first through their bodies…we empower students to look within for the answers and realize them internally instead of relying on external sources or previous experience.”

 “I’m anxious to see if this will help students learn and connect to something they know,” says Tsai, whose research is supported with a three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Tsai came to CU-Boulder in fall 2010 after talking with Daria Kotys-Schwartz, a mechanical engineering instructor who is known for her innovative teaching approaches which improve engineering education for all students.

Tsai discovered synergy, both within her department and among a greater circle of CU engineering faculty who are working to establish a center for engineering education research in the college.

“We have many professors here who are willing to try out new things,” Tsai said, adding that she is also working with faculty from the Integrated Teaching & Learning (ITL) Program as well as the BOLD Center.

The seeds of her interest in engineering education were planted early, Tsai says, when she was an undergraduate at Olin College, a rare, gender-balanced program that enrolls nearly equal numbers of men and women.

Tsai initially became interested in engineering when she was exposed to robotics as a teenager growing up in Fort Collins. After graduating from Olin, she continued to pursue this interest as a systems engineer with iRobot. She worked on the company’s popular Roomba vacuum cleaning robot for four years in Boston, Hong Kong, and China and actually taught the Roomba how to speak.

 “I got into engineering originally because of robots, but I think this problem I’m working on now –getting women into engineering–is quite difficult,” she explains. “A lot of other people can engineer robots.”

Tsai is one of 85 doctoral students nationwide selected in 2014 to receive a $15,000 scholar award from the P.E.O.Sisterhood, which provides merit-based awards for women pursuing doctoral degrees at accredited universities.

After completing her PhD, Tsai plans to teach in an engineering department, where she can apply her research and continue to improve engineering education.

Photo courtesy of Rick Cummings
Photo courtesy of Rick Cummings
Graduate student Janet Tsai leads elementary school girls on a tour of the ITL Lab
Graduate student Janet Tsai leads elementary school girls on a tour of the ITL Lab
Photo courtesy of Janet Tsai
Photo courtesy of Janet Tsai

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