“Have you made good choices today?”

Reflection activities can happen in many contexts and can be used to develop community  among students. Sonya Cunningham, of the University of Washington shared with us her activity “Have you made good choices today?” and it was also highlighted by the Seattle Times. See the article below!


 UW’s STARS helps low-income students shine

by Jerry Large, Seattle Times

Good students from low-income backgrounds soar to meet high

expectations at UW.

Usually when I think about helping kids succeed, I have in mind young children in the most dire circumstances, the ones who might not make it through school or might wind up in jail. But sometimes

even being an A student isn’t enough for a young person to reach her potential.

Ewurama Karikari and Trinh Ha were both top students in high school. Mount Tahoma in Tacoma for Ha and Bethel High School in Spanaway for Karikari. The freshmen made the winter-quarter dean’s list at the University of Washington, but might not have even attended the UW if not for a little help. Being there is good for their futures, and good for the UW, too.

Eve Riskin, professor of electrical engineering, told me the problem-solving work that engineers do benefits from the diversity of approaches that different life experiences create.

Riskin is also associate dean of diversity and access in the College of Engineering. And she sent me a note about a program just in its second year, called State Academic Red Shirt or STARS. She’d just gotten the winter-quarter grades and told me 11 of the 30 STARS students made the dean’s list. The Times wrote about the program last fall, but it’s been fine-tuned, so I asked what’s getting results.

The key ingredients are students who have shown they can stick to hard tasks, and a staff that brings tough love and high expectations.

We all know how competitive that access to the best education has become, and the stakes just keep rising. That’s particularly true in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields and at the most selective universities.

STEM programs cry that they’re not getting enough students, but they turn away large numbers of applicants because they want students who come out of high school prepared to plug into their programs without a hitch.

And that means they admit few students from low-income families who are likely to live in neighborhoods where educational opportunities are not equal to those in more upscale areas. The UW College of Engineering isn’t where it wants to be, but is more diverse than most of its peers because it makes an effort to bring in both underrepresented minority students and women.

A few years ago, I wrote about the college’s summer program for high-school students, Math Academy. It gave students a boost, but four weeks in the summer wasn’t quite enough to draw as many students into the college as it wanted. So the UW adopted the STARS idea (Washington State University did, too), paying for it with temporary grant money, primarily from the National Science Foundation.

Sonya Cunningham, who runs the UW program, said she gets a list in January or February of students who are applying to the UW as freshmen, and who attend schools with a significant percentage of low-income families.

She has current STARS students call them and talk up engineering. Then Cunningham evaluates them, looking for one trait in particular: perseverance. If they have good grades and grit, they have a good chance of succeeding in the intense program.

The students I spoke with said math work in the program was harder than they expected and even more challenging than what they later faced in class. The intent is to quickly get them up to where they need to be to compete with students who’ve had more math programs, a higher level of instruction and extracurricular enrichment.

Their first quarter, students get lessons in how to negotiate college, how to fit in with the culture. They work on academic and study skills.

Cunningham does proactive advising to head off potential problems (“Have you made good choices today?”), and from the start she molds them into a supportive community. She brought them together the week before classes started last fall and gave a $50 gift certificate to the first person who learned everyone’s names.

Ha won and said the students started bonding that week. “We can understand each other,” she said. And Karikari said, “We’re all really great friends and can call on each other.”

Two students fell behind during the fall quarter, and Cunningham applied some tough love. Some tears were shed, but the next quarter both were doing better. One of them went from a 2.2 GPA in the fall to the dean’s list in the winter.

Cunningham, who grew up in a low-income household in New York City, and who made it to college only because of the intervention of a teacher, feels a special kinship with the students. “This is coming full circle for me,” she said. “It’s my passion, and I love it.”

Karikari is interested in getting a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and Ha is interested in renewable energy and wants to work in industry. It’s a good bet STARS will help them realize their dreams.

Original post:

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or Twitter @jerrylarge.


Dreaming and Reflection

By: Lauren Sepp, UW Graduate Student, Human Centered Design & Engineeringbrain

Many days I like to see what is happening in the world related to reflection, for example, how is that word operationalized in the news? How about with regards to the latest technologies?  As I searched around recently, I found an interesting article linking dreaming to reflection.

A recent study was conducted about the links between what is referred to as ‘lucid dreaming’ and those who frequently practice self-reflection.  Lucid dreaming is the idea that one can be dreaming and consciously realize that they are in the dream state – able to control movements and responses within the context of their dream.  Lucid dreaming is opposed to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which is commonly associated with dreaming where an individual has “complete lack of insight into the true state of mind.” The researchers recruited participants and monitored brain activity both through structural and functional MRI.  Interestingly enough, those with increased lucid dreaming capabilities displayed a higher amount of grey matter in a certain part of the brain, among other differences.

While the study not only revealed clues about a participant’s differing brain structure, it also linked these findings to metacognitive abilities, postulating that in lucid dreaming states, individuals are able to regain their reflective abilities.  [1]

The results of the study may seem heady (no pun intended) but I think that they reveal that reflection could help to physically shape our brain, building different mechanisms and pathways that may help us to think differently.  In a press release, Elisa Filevich of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Institute for Human Development remarked that the, “…results indicate that self-reflection in everyday life is more pronounced in persons who can easily control their dreams.” [2]

Incorporating reflection into engineering education is not simply a move to help students to think more broadly about their education, but could these techniques help students to become more insightful about many other important parts of their lives?  If self-reflection can promote lucid dreaming abilities and physically shapes a portion of the brain, what else can it do?


[1] E. Flievich, M. Dresler, T. R. Brick and S. Kuhn, “Metcognitive Mechanisms Underlying Lucid Dreaming,” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 1082-1088, 2015.

[2] “Lucid dreams and metacognition: Awareness of thinking – awareness of dreaming.” Max-Planck. 20 Jan. 2015.

Link to actual Study:

Summary of the study:

Photo Credit:

Muddiest Point: Reflecting back to move forward

For the purposes of learning, reflection can be thought of as intentional bridging between past experience and future action. If getting your students to reflect sounds too complicated and time-consuming to fit into your busy ten-week quarter, consider an example of reflection that has all of the essential features but only takes a few minutes: an efficient, simple assessment technique popularly called “Muddiest Point” that can be applied in virtually any learning context.Reflection

After some kind of learning experience (e.g., lecture, group activity, paper), you give your students a minute to write down what they find the most unclear or confusing—the “muddiest point.” Students can benefit a surprising amount from the mere minute dedicated to this reflection activity. They practice greater awareness of their learning, and repetition can help develop habits to support lifelong learning. Students who recognize where their understanding is “muddy” are also better positioned to direct their learning to remedy this. To better support this, you can also ask students to identify one thing they could do to improve their understanding of their “muddiest point”—perhaps a study group, office hours, reading, or practice exercises.

This reflection activity can inform your future action as the educator, too—not just the students’. Students’ responses help you gauge their learning and guide how you might help them address their “muddiest points.”

Compact reflection activities like “Muddiest Point” are easy to incorporate into most courses. More extensive reflection activities can help students get more learning out of educational experiences and make more numerous and deeper connections. Such activities might have students dedicating more time to the reflection and/or entail reflecting on experiences over a longer span of time.

For instance, mid-way through a multi-week team project, you could have your students write about how they and their peers could improve at being a successful team. For even larger-scale reflection, you could have your students write about how learning in prior courses contributed to their successful completion of some kind of culminating work, e.g., an honors thesis or engineering capstone.

Helping students develop habits of reflecting can help them get more out of their educational experiences. With reflection, individual experiences become more meaningful, and connections to future experiences and goals become apparent. This helps integrates otherwise disparate days, weeks, quarters, and years of education, with the ultimate goal of lifelong learning.

Ken Yasuhara serves as the UW campus lead for the Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education (CPREE) and is a research scientist at the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching (CELT).

The original post can be found at:

Engineering Education – Past and Present

Engineering has no doubt, progressed in the last 150 years. The commercial airplane, personal automobile, and the computer are some of the marvels that engineers have produced. Engineering pedagogy and curriculum have unquestionably changed as well. I recently skimmed through a book written in 1918 by Charles Riborg Mann on the subject of engineering education, highlighting the present conditions, current problems, and suggested solutions for engineering education. Among the problems, Mann lists admission, time constraints, course content, testing and grading, and shop work as main sections for discussion. As we enter 2015, we continue to see the same repeated discussions as 100 years prior. [1]

In the compilation, Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century published by the National Academy of Engineering, a discussion ensues about the outlook of engineering education. In a section entitled, “Pursue Student-Centered Education,” it is stated that “one should address how students learn as well as what they learn in order to ensure that student learning outcomes focus on the performance characteristics needed in future engineers. Two major tasks define this focus: (1) better alignment of engineering curricula and tpic_engineering_degreehe nature of academic experiences with the challenges and opportunities graduates will face in the workplace and (2) better alignment of faculty skill sets with those needed to deliver the desired curriculum in light of the different learning styles of students.” [2]

It is a continual struggle to define what the “best” approach to educating engineers is. Will that come with improved curriculum? Better grading? Or does the key lie in how we assist students in drawing meaning and significance from their work thus motivating them to continue to pursue engineering with excellence? We believe that reflection plays a vital role in helping students to draw significance and understanding from their rigorous studies.

Even as we continually make strides towards improving engineering education, we will still ask similar questions as Professor Mann in 1919, “Do we need fewer or more schools? Is the curriculum too long or too short? Should the engineering school be made a graduate professional school? What are the present demands of science, of industry, and of education? How well are the schools meeting these demands? What changes, if any, seem desirable?” [1]

Lauren Sepp is a graduate student in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She is also a  research assistant for CPREE. (
[1] Mann, Charles Riborg. “A study of engineering education.” Bulletin 11 (1918).
[2] Phase, I. I. Educating the Engineer of 2020:: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. National Academies Press, 2005.

Reflection on Failure

Lauren Sepp

In light of the recent explosion of the Antares rocket, many engineers’ countless hours of preparation and calculation have resulted in a $200 million loss. While extremely disappointing, and the exact cause still unknown, the explosion provides an inviting backdrop for reflection. Many engineers must confront failure at one point or another during their career and whether that occurs in college or while launching a rocket, learning how to fail and reflecting on why can serve to broaden our approaches and perspectives.

rocket explosion[1]

In a journal article by Glenda S. Stump, Jenefer Husman, and Marcia Corby, students’ beliefs about intelligence in relation to learning and successes and failures is discussed. Some students have the ability to view failure as a stepping stone to gaining knowledge and an indicator to try a new approach or study harder, while others “…view their failure as a reflection of their low ability. They begin to doubt their capability for success, and their self-efficacy for learning and performance begins to erode.” [2]

The experience of failure is a necessary part of the learning process and while the Antares rocket failure is a bit different than failing a term in school, it reminds us to press on through the difficult times, and that taking failed results and learning from them, to move forward boldly despite them, can be a positive addition to our education.

It is in this same spirit that the Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, William Gerstenmaier describes the outcome of the explosion:
“While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences’ third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful today, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today’s mishap. The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies. Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.” [3]

William Gerstenmaier is sharing the reflective stance of NASA’s engineers – that although the failure is extremely expensive and disappointing, they are well prepared to take it in stride, to improve on further iterations, and to move forward.

Discussing failures such as the Antares Rocket explosion, or other engineering failures remind students to not only take necessary measures to avoid catastrophic failure in engineering as an ethical consideration, but to consider this time in school as an opportunity to fail – it is unique in that the failures they encounter now are usually only represented by a letter grade, and it can be vital to take those in stride to improve approaches and methodology as to avoid catastrophic failure in their steps outside of college.


[1] NASA, “NASA Statement Regarding Oct. 28 Orbital Sciences Corp. Launch Failure,” NASA, 28 October 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 October 2014].
[2] J. H. M. C. Glenda S Stump, “Engineering Students’ Intelligence Beliefs and Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 103, no. 3, pp. 369-387, 2014.
[3] D. Szondy, “NASA Releases More Information on Antares Explosion,” Gizmag, 28 October 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 October 2014].


Lauren Sepp is a graduate student in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She is also a  research assistant for CPREE. (