Engineering Nerds In Real Life

Raising Nerd Profile: The Engineering Professor

Hey, Nerd builders, it’s International Engineering Day! In honor of this Nerd-inspired “holiday,” we’re throwing our ultra-high-lumen, career spotlight on engineering professor Dr. Ethan Danahy.

Raising Nerd Profile: Engineering ProfessorDr. Danahy is a Research Assistant Professor at Tufts University’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), a group that’s been around for 20 years exploring methodologies and tools for improving engineering education, as well as exploring ways in which they can enhance education through the early introduction of engineering topics to K-12 students. He has a secondary appointment in the Department of Computer Science within Tufts’ School of Engineering.

Dr. Danahy holds graduate degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from Tufts. With particular attention to engaging students in STEAM curriculum, he focuses his investigations on enhancing creativity and innovation, supporting better documentation, and encouraging collaborative learning.

Professor Danahy was kind enough to share with our Raising Nerd community his career path, his perspective on engaging young minds, and how parents can help stoke their kids’ passions for science, technology, and innovation.

RN: Tell us about your role at Tufts University.

A Peek into "Dr. E's" Engineering Lab at Tufts

A Peek into “Dr. E’s” Engineering Lab at Tufts

Dr. Ethan Danahy (Dr. E): I’m a Research Assistant Professor at Tufts University within the School of

Engineering. A lot of my job is conducting scientific research and development, but I also teach a few classes at Tufts. My favorite is a class on robotics for first-year engineering students (these are undergraduates who have just arrived at Tufts, haven’t yet picked a major, and are exploring different aspects of engineering).

I love teaching about robots because, while we don’t have a robotics major at Tufts, I can cover a range of topics such as mechanical and structural engineering, electrical and computer engineering, as well as computer science and programming. I also use this course as a chance to teach students about the engineering design process, and build their skills in collaboration (they have to work in groups), communication (they do presentations after each project), and applying creativity in engineering (they must be innovative to solve different challenges I give them each week). All these ideas are related to my research.

RN: What kind of research do you do?

Dr. E: In my CEEO research group, specifically, we do research and development of new educational technologies (different hardware, software, and interfaces for teaching and learning), as well as think about environments in which these tools are introduced (often classrooms), the ways the tools are used by teachers (including teacher professional development), and in what types of activities the students are engaged.

With my background in computer science and electrical engineering, I often partner with professors from across the University with other expertise, including mechanical engineering, human factors, child development, and education.

Some of my collaborative projects include:

  • Developing new software interfaces to program the LEGO MINDSTORMS robots
  • Exploring the use of large-format, multi-touch tables (basically, iPads the size of a coffee table) for doing interactive physics experiments
  • Creating documentation tools for facilitating students in digitally capturing and sharing the work (pictures, movies, text, etc.) they are doing in the classroom, etc.

Basically, we’re interested in exploring any way technology can be used to enhance the learning experience, from encouraging student creativity and diversity of solutions, to capturing and documenting the process and procedures in which students engage, to facilitating collaboration among student peers.

RN: When you were in elementary school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Raising Nerd Profile: Engineering Professor

Tufts Engineering Professor Danahy as a child in his homemade robot Halloween costume

Dr. E: It’s interesting: both my parents are teachers, and when I was young I thought I would never be a teacher. It just wasn’t something I ever planned on doing. I knew I liked math and science, so when I finished high school and went to Tufts University, I studied engineering and, specifically, majored in computer science.

I always enjoyed making computer programs and the act of digitally solving challenges — the process of getting the final result, including writing and debugging code. But I didn’t actually know what I’d do with those skills when I graduated. I never really thought too far into the future. I just pursued what interested me, and figured the next step (like getting a job) would work itself out.

RN: When did you begin pursuing a career teaching engineering?

Dr. E: When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, a Tufts professor approached me and asked if I wanted to work in his research lab. That was Professor Chris Rogers. He founded the Tufts CEEO and is the one who initiated the university’s work with LEGO.

Prof. Rogers introduced me to the possibility of using LEGO bricks, robots, and other products for education. I really enjoyed the work and, through him, I got inspired to continue working in this area. More than 15 years later, we’re still working together. He’s been a really good mentor for me, and has created many opportunities for me along the way, including the opportunity to travel all over the world running workshops and speaking with teachers .

Looking back, I don’t remember what I wanted to do when I grew up. But I can assure you I wouldn’t have predicted the path I’ve taken!

RN: What makes you passionate about your job and other science-related interests? What keeps you coming back for more?

Dr. E: I really do like my job! I like it for three main reasons. First is the flexibility. I get to decide what I do and make decisions regarding which direction my research group is going to go. Then I work with my lab colleagues to make those ideas happen.  While it can be a lot of work and put a lot of pressure on me to make the right decisions, it’s nice to be the one getting to choose what we do. This allows me to pursue my own interests rather than someone else telling me what to do.

Second, education is vitally important to everyone in every country, culture, and society around the world. And I think creating educational technologies is something that can help change the world. Education has, more or less, stayed the same for many years. So, it’s time for some innovation and change! That’s what motivates me each day to get up and continue doing my job because I know it has the power to make a real impact on lives of students everywhere.

Third, I get to learn something new each day. I’m always playing with new technology, exploring different robots and other tools, and solving different, complex problems all the time. Of course, it also helps that I get to be an adult and still play with LEGO as part of my job.

Earlier this year, my wife — she teaches high school math in Boston — and I discussed what we would do if we won the lottery. Both of us decided we’d still go to our jobs every day! That’s how much we like them. Of course, we’d probably take a few more vacation days. But you know you’ve picked the right career when you say you’d stick with it even after you won the lottery!

RN: What advice would you give to your kids or others thinking about their careers?

A LEGO robot that plays the guitar

A LEGO robot one of Dr. E’s students made that plays a guitar

Dr. E: The biggest piece of advice I’d give to anyone in any stage of their life is about being passionate. Anything that you pursue, you need to make sure you’re willing to put in the time, energy, sweat, and labor required to do the job well, with energy and enthusiasm. You don’t want work to be painful. You want to enjoy going there every day, be happy with what you are doing, and feel good about it. If you’re passionate about the career you choose, that energy will come naturally.

I also want to nurture in my children the idea that they don’t have to “have it all figured out.” In today’s world, we put pressure on children to excel, to succeed early, to know what they want to be when they grow up, and to be constantly striving down that path. But I think a child still needs to “be a child” and to experience and explore the world. It’s way too early for them to be thinking about pursuing a specific career (or even what they are “good at” and “not good at”). There is always more time to develop new skills and interests.

RN: That’s great advice. Where do you find that passion in your own work?

Dr. E: I love solving problems. So, working with computers and other technology and conducting scientific research is fulfilling for me because I’m always engaged in solving problems. To be passionate about a job like mine, you have to like “rules.” It’s like learning the rules of a game and then thinking about how to apply those rules to different situations (science, math, and the laws that govern how technology work are filled with many “rules” and constraints).

But you also have to be creative. Because when doing research or inventing something new (like a new application or program), you have to look at all the examples of what other people have done. Then you must figure out how to create or do something nobody else has done yet.

RN: What advice do you have for Nerds that are just starting out and are having a hard time finding success?

Dr. E: You have to be patient. Things almost never work the first time (or second, or third, or 100th…). You have to look back at what you’ve done, analyze mistakes, and figure out what to change to fix the problem. Perseverance and grit (dedication and willingness to face the same challenge over and over again) are essential characteristics as well.

RN: There are so many Nerding areas to consider as a career. What advice would you give a budding Nerd as they pursue a career in engineering or science or…whatever?

Dr. E: I think it’s important when you’re young to learn about and discover all the different possibilities out there, but not feel pressure to decide what it is you’re going to do the rest of your life. Certainly, students should concentrate on doing the best they can at anything/everything they do (from classes to homework to sports to even playing and having fun), but it’s a time to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible. There will be time when you’re older to apply focus towards specific interests (which can, and probably will, change over time). To operate within that mentality requires a lifelong passion for learning and being flexible and adaptive. Rigidity might result in being left behind.

For more information on robotics and other classroom engineering tools, check out these resources Dr. Danahy recommends:

  • Go here and here for more Information about the course on robotics Dr. Danahy teaches to first-year Tufts engineers
  • Here are two videos featuring robots Dr. Danahy’s students created in Fall 2014 and Fall 2013
  • Teachers or parents interested in learning how to use LEGO as a tool for engineering activities at school or home can visit the worldwide LEGO Engineering Community run by the Tufts CEEO, either at the website here or on Facebook here
  • Dr. Danahy’s research lab runs two “Dr. E’s Challenges” websites that make use of LEGO WeDo and LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics sets. The sites post new challenges every month for students around the world to solve, document, and share their creations.

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