Marie C. Paretti, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, recently earned a $405,308 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for her research regarding the experience of engineering capstone design courses both for students and faculty.

Engineering is an application-oriented discipline, and capstone design courses, which are also called senior design, are the essence of this approach. “They are so central that ABET Inc., the accreditation agency for engineering programs, requires every accredited program to provide such experiences for their undergraduates. Students must be prepared for engineering practice through the curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating appropriate engineering standards and multiple realistic constraints," Paretti said.

“The structure of the course varies -- sometimes it’s one semester, sometimes it’s two, sometimes the projects are supported by industry sponsors, sometimes not -- but the basic idea is that students apply the knowledge and skills they've gained throughout their major to define, plan, and conduct a large open-ended design project,” Paretti added.

“Teaching capstone design, however, is a little different from teaching a more content-based course like thermodynamics or statics because it involves a lot of mentoring and coaching students through a process,” Paretti explained. The goal of her research, titled “An Exploration of Faculty Expertise and Student Learning in Capstone Experiences," is to better understand how this kind of teaching happens and what kinds of things faculty do to effectively balance their roles as teachers, evaluators, and mentors to best support student learning. Her findings will be used to help train the next generation of design faculty and increasingly enhance undergraduate engineering education.

“Capstone design courses are one of the pillars of contemporary engineering education, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to contribute to the growing body of educational research in this area,” Paretti explained.

“The NSF CAREER award will enable me to conduct an extended study of faculty expertise in this important arena, and in doing so help the larger community to learn from the best teachers in the nation. I am honored to receive this award and I look forward to using the results of this study to enhance undergraduate engineering education and support excellence in teaching and learning," she said.

Paretti holds a bachelor of science in chemical engineering and an master of arts in English from Virginia Tech, as well as a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She joined the engineering education department at Virginia Tech in 2004. She has also worked as a technical writer for several different software companies, and served as the assistant director of professional writing in the Virginia Tech English department, the assistant department chair in English, and the director of the Materials Science and Engineering/Engineering Science and Mechanics Engineering Communications Program.

In addition to her position in the engineering education department, Paretti is the co-director of the Virginia Tech Engineering Communications Center (VTECC) with Lisa D. McNair, and director of the Materials Science and Engineering/Engineering Science and Mechanics Engineering Communications Program.

Paretti teaches professional development courses and capstone design in materials science and engineering and engineering science and mechanics. Her broader research interests include communication in engineering design, interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, design education, and gender in engineering.

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