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McDonnell prof selected

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 02:02


Caroline Geiling / The Tufts Daily

The James S. McDonnell Family Foundation has given a $3 million gift to Tufts to support the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO)’s research and fund a professorship in engineering education.


Pending university and provost approval, Visiting Assistant Professor in Computer Science Ben Shapiro later this year will become the first holder of the James S. McDonnell Family Foundation professorship in engineering education, a $3 million gift made to the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) in 2010.

The CEEO is dedicated to transforming education by incorporating engineering in classrooms from the kindergarten level through college. According to Associate Director of the CEEO Merredith Portsmore, the McDonnell Family Foundation donated to the CEEO after learning about the center’s outreach through some of its partners, including LEGO Engineering. 

“We have a program that sends engineering undergrads into K-12 classrooms in the area,” Portsmore said. “We also do educational research — figuring out how this works, what students are learning, what things are productive in classrooms — all with the event of transforming what happens in schools so kids are solving problems and innovating their own solutions. It’s kind of using engineering to transform the classroom.”

She said that while the CEEO is housed under the School of Engineering, the outreach is actually cross-disciplinary with the Department of Education. Shapiro will be working with professors and students in both departments to create products that help others learn, he said.

Shapiro will spend this spring semester setting up research, writing grant proposals for additional projects and attending conferences.  He will begin teaching in the fall with a course on educational product design, he said.

“I want to get students from engineering together with students from education and from arts to go out and try to understand something about what makes it hard for people to learn in some context,” he said.  “They’re going to have to understand what makes that hard and design something to help. It could mean developing an iPhone app or designing some physical devices.”

Shapiro has done substantial research on educational video games and plans to continue his work with a new group at Tufts.

“I’ve been working on a project for a while now on modeling environmental issues and sustainability,” he said.  “Think about a multi-player SimCity where people can make choices on what to build and where. Then we simulate the impact of those choices on ecology and economics so people can play together to try to figure out how they can do well within their role.”

Shapiro said he hopes to combine his background in virtual environments with the CEEO’s expertise in tangible education.

Portsmore said Shapiro is key in building the CEEO’s research base in engineering education outreach.  Shapiro is able to mentor graduate students full-time in all kinds of contexts, physical and virtual. 

“Engineering education is something we need to understand, we need to research,” she said. “We need to be able to explain how kids learn and think about how they design something. It’s really exciting to have a faculty member now that that’s part of their mission and agenda.”

Shapiro plans to reach out to students in the School of Arts and Sciences interested in human development and design to work on his projects.  

“I really like to think about how Tufts can be a leader, not just in the region, but nationally in helping people to understand how to improve their communities through design and engineering,” he said.  “There’s a potentially really big civic role for engineers to play in helping society reflect on itself and understand how to solve challenges that face us all.”

With engineering education on the rise, Portsmore hopes Shapiro is the first of several hires at Tufts.

“I think it’s really going to help us push our work forward to have another researcher, another faculty member,” she said. “I think it’s going to help position Tufts overall to be a leader in engineering education. We kind of have our own special spin here. We want to make the next generation of kids innovators by giving them chances to build robots and make video games and do all of this cool stuff.”

As the first engineering professor scholar-in-residence at Lewis Hall, Shapiro said he is excited for the opportunity to connect engineering and arts in students’ lives whether it is through the Crafts Center or residence hall discussions.

“I think we have so much opportunity to explore what it means to be on a campus together,” he said.

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