ASU Thunderbird student carries many homes in her heart

October 5, 2017

This profile is part of a series highlighting the personal stories and achievements of Thunderbird students. Ready to read more? Subscribe to the Knowledge Network newsletter.

Even amid the rich diversity at Thunderbird School of Global Management, Faduma Mohamed stands out: She was born in the United States to Somali parents but raised entirely in Kenya. As a result, Faduma speaks fluent English, Swahili, Somali and “a bit of Arabic.” Faduma Thunderbird School Faduma-Dhool Mohamed (center) '17, Master of Arts in Global Affairs and Management, Somalia/Kenya Download Full Image

“Kenya is my home — my friends and family members still live there. But because of my parents, I am 100 percent Somali, and that’s my culture. My American identity is something I’m still discovering since I came to Thunderbird,” she said. “I was raised with a multicultural background — there was diversity even within our house. So that’s something I appreciate.”

Faduma said people often find her background intriguing or even confusing. “But I grew up with it, so it’s normal to me,” she said. “With Kenya, we have so many tribes, and each tribe has their own culture, language and food delicacy.”

“So I appreciate where I come from and my Somali blood, but at the same time I appreciate the country that I am in.”

‘Use business to do good’

Faduma came to Thunderbird to “find ways to use business to do good,” she said, and her childhood in Kenya offered an early glimpse of the path she would later choose.

“Growing up, I always had a passion and interest in helping people. I remember as a kid, it was as simple as collecting money and giving it to the street children anytime I’d see them,” she said. “As I grew up, the ways I’d help people matured, and I increased my thinking outside the box.”

In high school, for example, Faduma launched a fundraising campaign to create “Kindness Kits” that provided basic essentials for orphans. She was overwhelmed by the support it received and the number of people who got involved.

“It helped me realize that people want to do good if you just give them an opportunity,” she said. “People want to help but don’t know how or who to contact. Sometimes you have to be that person, step up and put that idea out there.”

“People want to do good if you just give them an opportunity. Sometimes you have to be that person, step up and put that idea out there.”

Faduma said her passion for helping people “has always been with me — I think that comes from my parents. Especially my mom.”

Her mother was born and raised in Somalia but moved to Kenya during a period of civil war in the 1990s. Kenya is also where her mother and father met.

“Coming from a war-stricken country that’s affected by poverty and unemployment, my mother always had that sense of giving back to her country. She had family members still back in Somalia,” Faduma said. “So my mom instilled that value in me.”

It would be another four years before she applied. Faduma wanted more work experience, so after a brief stint at an international bank, she moved into the environmental services industry and worked with a company that sold solar energy panels, water sanitation and environmentally friendly products.During her undergraduate business studies in Kenya, Faduma first learned about Thunderbird, but not from a recruiter or a professor. Her uncle had recently attended Thunderbird through an executive program with Intel: “He told me all about it and he said, ‘If you want to do your master’s degree, Thunderbird is the place for you.’”

Thunderbird ‘a perfect mix’

“That was a great experience because I was young and it was a mid-sized company, so there was a lot of room for me to grow within the company,” she said. “I gained a lot of responsibility and experience that helped when I came to Thunderbird. During class discussions, for example, I could share my experiences. Or I could get input from professors about how I could take that experience further.”

“That’s why Thunderbird was such a perfect mix for me,” she said, “because it has that global affairs aspect of business. It’s a place where I could leverage my business degree and my work experience and then do something that I’m passionate about.”

“When I got here, I immediately started working with Thunderbird for Good.

They have programs that train women entrepreneurs from all over the world, empowering them to run their own businesses. And so working with them has definitely opened my eyes to how you can combine both.”

Thunderbird Faduma

‘We get each other’

Faduma said she loves learning from Thunderbird professors because they reach beyond business theory to include experiences in the field. “I’m so glad I’ve had a chance to learn from them but also to chat with them outside of the classroom and have them as mentors.”

Her fellow students are also a source of learning and inspiration, Faduma said.

“In my class, we had so many different backgrounds. In terms of culture, of course, but also in terms of undergraduate degrees, people with lots of experience or little-to-no experience. But everyone has worked at some point in their life,” she said. “We all have different ways of thinking, and you see that in the classroom discussions or group projects. That’s better than thinking in just one direction. We realize that none of our experiences are superior to the other.”

“I think the fact that we students are so different but we share so many commonalities, that makes it much stronger. We get each other.”

Long after Faduma has left Thunderbird, these people and relationships will still leave a lasting impact, she said: “That’s something I heard over and over from alumni, and it’s true. Thunderbird is such a unique place. I think the fact that we students are so different but we share so many commonalities, that makes it much stronger. We get each other.”

Faduma graduated in May, but her goal is to gain more international experience before heading home to make an impact in Kenya.

“How I see myself in the future of Kenya, and also Somalia, is to make them a better place for youth and for disadvantaged communities. And to use business to do that, because business is powerful,” she said.

“Being independent, making your own money — that’s a gift that anyone would be forever thankful for. Helping or giving aid is one thing, but what if you can teach someone how to start their own business and provide for themselves and their families?”

“That’s priceless, and that’s something I want to take back home — to both of my homes.”

New ASU engineering program sets game-changing goals

Engineering Education Systems and Design doctoral program aims to produce researchers equipped to drive innovation

October 5, 2017

Improving education takes far more than a better understanding of the subjects you’re trying to impart knowledge about. It’s equally as crucial to know a whole lot about the various people you are endeavoring to motivate and educate.

Simply put, that sums up a core challenge upon which the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University established its Engineering Education Systems and Design doctoral program a year ago. people sitting around table Faculty and students in the Fulton Schools’ Engineering Education Systems and Design doctoral program hope to produce research that leads to more effective approaches to teaching engineering throughout all levels of education and across different social and cultural environments. Pictured clockwise from far left are: student Eunsil Lee, Associate Professor Jennifer Bekki, Assistant Professor Micah Lande, student Ieshya Anderson, Associate Professor Shawn Jordan, students Wen Huang, Thien Ta and Mark Huerta and Assistant Professor Sohum Sohoni. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

That is where the simplicity ends, because the program — whose second cohort of students began studies this fall —  focuses on deep explorations and analysis of “education ecosystems” in all of their multifaceted complexity.

Such ecosystems encompass the many intertwined factors that shape various individuals, groups, communities and societies, explained Associate Professor Jennifer Bekki, the chair of the program based at the Polytechnic School, one of the six Fulton Schools.  

Engineering education researchers apply their understanding of the interplay of those factors in creating learning experiences and environments that will be the most effective within the context of a particular group’s social and cultural fabric. 

“We try to examine all the things, including things like societal attitudes and behavioral norms, that combine to impact the educational environments in different settings,” Bekki said. “It’s much more than simply developing methods for teaching specific kinds of courses.” 

“Engineering itself is based on systems thinking, and as engineering education researchers we view contexts in terms of ecosystems,” Associate Professor Shawn Jordan said.

“We may look at what motivates people, for example. We look at what connects with people in different contexts and how they can apply their engineering learnings,” Assistant Professor Micah Lande said. 

“Our research in this field is kind of like applying sociology to gain a deep understanding of how people experience engineering and how they could learn it better,” he said. “People are at the center of our studies, not just the technologies that are the focus of most research in the engineering world.”

Preparing future engineers to navigate new terrain

The aim of such research also extends to finding ways to stoke students’ interest in engineering in the first place, and then helping them persist and discover how they can make a difference and have an impact with their engineering knowledge, Lande said.

Associate Professor Adam Carberry said learning engineering is not about adopting a narrowly focused mindset — one limited only to technological know-how.

He points out that today’s professional engineers are much more likely than in decades past to work in an international industry environment where they are encountering cultural, social, ethnic and gender diversity.

“If we’re going to prepare people to be successful engineers in the future, how do we redesign educational systems to prepare them to work in that diverse terrain?” he said. “We have to get out in the world and do research to determine how to do that.”

Thien Ta (left) came to Arizona State University from her home in Vietnam to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and has decided to stay to pursue a doctoral degree in the Engineering Education Systems and Design program. Mark Huerta comes to the program with experience as a founder and leader of an international nonprofit venture, 33 Buckets, which works to provide access to clean water for communities in underdeveloped countries. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

The scope of what engineering education researchers seek to improve is far-reaching.

Better curriculum, student recruitment and retention, and more effective teaching and learning assessment strategies and analytics are only a start.

The goals extend to boosting participation of groups underrepresented in engineering professions, as well as cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit and the Maker Movement mindset among target groups that include K-12 and college students, engineering faculty members, early career professionals and members of underrepresented populations, both within and outside of formal educational settings.

Holistic approach to education design

The evolving 21st century engineering landscape demonstrates the increasing value of investing in engineering education systems and design studies and research, said Professor Ann McKenna, the director of the Polytechnic School, who helped write the proposal to form the new program and is also on the program’s faculty.

“We need more scholarship, more ideas and more people in the field who bring fresh and different points of view if the needed innovations in education are going to come to fruition,” she said.

Fulton Schools leaders are eager to see what research by the program’s faculty and students reveals that could serve their goals.

“We are continuously looking for new ways to improve student retention in all of our engineering programs,” said Professor James Collofello, vice dean of academic and student affairs. “But we’re also anxious to watch the research findings coming out of this program be applied far beyond that.”

McKenna and Bekki re-emphasize that this undertaking does not concentrate solely on college education or even educational institutions.

“We look at the concept of an education system holistically,” Bekki said, “starting with pre-kindergarten and going up through and beyond doctoral students. And that whole educational environment along the way is impacted by families, by teachers, socioeconomic factors, school administrations and government policies.”

McKenna says researchers want to learn everything from how to encourage youngsters to view engineering as a viable career to how to design more effective extended education programs for business and industry professionals.

Jordan added that, “Even some companies are turning to engineering educators to design, implement and assess employee training, to capture knowledge from retiring employees and to use big data analytics to make informed business decisions.”

The new doctoral program’s mission is to equip its students with knowledge and skills to work everywhere from education and research institutions, government agencies and public policy groups, to industry, science and learning centers, museums, community organizations and consulting groups.

Improving education to move society forward

Students in the program say they’re encouraged by the range of career possibilities the field may offer.

Thien Ta came to ASU from her native Vietnam to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. She had planned to return soon after to a faculty position at a technical college in her homeland.

But after learning about the Engineering Education Systems and Design doctoral program, she decided to stay at ASU to earn a degree in the program.

She foresees the expertise she hopes to gain positioning her to help modernize engineering education in her country, to encourage more diversity in the engineering professions there, and elevating her own stature in the higher education profession.

Wen Huang came from China to join the program. He has degrees in areas related to software engineering and computer programming, but views the new program as a promising opportunity to gain much broader expertise in science, engineering, education and social sciences.

If he is someday able to use those skills to help drive innovation in his country and to bring a more global perspective to education there, Huang said, “it will be a very important step to improving society.”

Aspiring to ‘change the world for the better’

Michael Sheppard says he was attracted to the program’s “big-picture focus” on research and education.

Sheppard earned a degree in biomedical science in Virginia before serving six years in the Navy, then in 2013 earned a bachelor’s degree at the Polytechnic School in engineering with a concentration in mechanical systems. He then worked in industry for four years and most recently taught physics at a charter middle school/high school.

As his “passion for teaching” emerged, he looked for higher-level career opportunities in the field. He sees the new program helping to open paths for him in a range of pursuits, including his interests in improving educational opportunities for people “at different socioeconomic levels,” and for military veterans.

two people talking at table
Assistant Professor Micah Lande (pictured with student Ieshya Anderson) says the still-emerging field of engineering education systems and design offers students opportunities to break new ground in education scholarship and research. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU


Eunsil Lee left her native South Korea to pursue a doctoral degree at a major university in the eastern United States that would advance her interests in working on the academic side of the textile engineering field she had been trained in. But after a year, she found her interest drifting away from the heavy focus on the technical aspects of teaching that particular branch of engineering.

“I wanted to stay in engineering,” she said, but decided that broadening her expertise through engineering education studies “was the right path for me.”

She found that the new Fulton Schools program appeared to be what she was looking for. After a year in the program, she says, “I’m doing the thing I want to do in my life.”

Her primary research interest is in studying engineering doctoral students from among populations in which women and international students are underserved.

By learning what experiences motivates them to pursue doctoral degrees despite social challenges they face, she hopes discover how to develop better support systems for such students.

“I am convinced that even small improvements in engineering education can have a big impact on the quality of the new engineers that we develop, and that will eventually change the world for the better,” she said.

Helping communities open up educational opportunities

Ieshya Anderson, a recent ASU graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in the Polytechnic School’s engineering program, got an opportunity in her senior year to assist in research being done by Associate Professor Jordan for a project to promote engineering and technology education for youngsters in the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Anderson’s father is Navajo, and she grew up mostly on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. She observed Jordan as he developed a program and curriculum designed to show those students and their communities how engineering and related fields of study could positively impact their future.

As part of the effort, Anderson also helped to manage STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) summer camps for young Navajo students.

She found Jordan’s project “really creative in the way he could design education to make it effective and meaningful” in a culture that has not traditionally had a strong connection to formal higher education in science and engineering fields.

Now a student in the new doctoral program, Anderson says she is motivated by the potential for someday using the education systems and design skills she will learn to help tribal communities elevate the educational opportunities they can offer their people.

Faculty will set example as dedicated researchers

Anderson and other students in the program will be learning those skills primarily through developing and implementing their own engineering education research projects.

“This is not about how to give a really good lecture. This is a really in-depth dive into studying all the things that affect an educational environment and finding what makes an education system thrive or fail,” said Associate Professor Nadia Kellam.

“We are training them to be really critical thinkers, equipped with the methodologies to thoroughly assess problems in ways that reveal the most productive paths to solutions,” she said.

Added Assistant Professor Samantha Brunhaver: “Our approach is to help students learn how to design their own studies and research in a rigorous way, so that the results they get will be valid.”

The students will be aided in that laborious process by the program’s faculty members, who are involved in their own similarly demanding pursuits.

“We have a young faculty. None of us are at the stage where we are just sitting back and resting on past accomplishments,” Brunhaver said. “The students see us actively writing grant proposals, publishing papers and conducting research. In that way, we hope we can be role models for them.”

Stretching the spectrum of education design

In addition to the strong focus on “learning by doing,” Program Chair Bekki and Polytechnic School director McKenna stress that the students also have the benefit of a faculty whose research pursuits span across a broad range of disparate aspects of engineering education research.

“We’re fortunate that ASU has that openness to people who want to take things in new directions,” McKenna said. “That has helped us hire faculty who give us a critical mass of diverse expertise, with people who are leaders in their various areas of research.”

Beyond all that, added Assistant Professor Lande, since the engineering education research field is still in its emergent stages, the program’s students have opportunities to broaden the spectrum of what the engineering education research community can contribute. 

“Students have both the benefit and the burden of defining who they are and what they can do,” he said. “They are on an adventure into places where there is still new territory to discover.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering