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Commencement Stories: Elizabeth

The Trailblazer

When Ohio Northern University introduced the engineering education major in fall 2011, the University knew it was on the cusp of a new movement to make STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields more attractive and accessible to young people. They didn’t quite know that the new major would make history.

On Sunday, May 11, Elizabeth Spingola will graduate with the first degree in engineering education in the United States, a feat made possible by something that more than a few college students have done before her: change majors.

“I started out at Northern as a mechanical engineer,” she says. “My dream was to design and work on bullet trains. However, it felt like something was missing. When the college introduced the engineering education major, I knew the emotional interaction the major stressed was what I was looking for.”

Changing her major put her a year ahead of the rest of the inaugural class, and this is the reason why she stands alone as the first engineering education graduate. Since she already had completed a year of engineering coursework for mechanical, the transition was seamless.

Spingola has two passions in her life: engineering and teaching. The former she learned from her great-uncle back in Butler, Pa., a World War II veteran and mechanical engineer, who regularly invited her down to his basement workshop to build engines, work with wood, and learn how things work. She never formally learned how to teach until her coursework at ONU, but instruction and communication always came easy to her. She tutored her fellow students in high school and taught taekwondo to children with autism.

“I like to think of teaching as unlocking a student’s potential by understanding how he or she learns. Every student can learn. Every single student has the potential to grow. It’s up to the teachers to understand how to reach them,” she says.

In the engineering education major, Spingola has the best of both worlds. As the first graduate of her kind, she feels an odd sort of responsibility to the discipline. She believes strongly in what a new generation of formally trained engineering teachers will be able to accomplish, especially in attracting more women and minorities to engineering. It is why she is pursing her Ph.D. in engineering education at Virginia Tech University, one of the few schools in the nation with a doctoral program. Spingola wants to develop curricula for engineering education in K-12, so she’ll be engaging in research into what works and what doesn’t. She wants to change the way teachers talk about engineering.

Spingola on WLIO television news.

“We send so many subliminal messages to kids when we talk about science and math,” she says. “How many times have you heard someone say, ‘It’s okay that you couldn’t do it; it’s hard.’? It’s not hard. It’s fun! It’s a challenge! That’s the message we need to send children.”

Spingola has set a fine example for the rest of her engineer education cohort. By definition, the first must lead. She has authored or co-authored papers at ONU and Olin College in Boston, Mass., where she did a summer research project. She’s made several memorable presentations at national conferences, and she recently won the Catherine Freed Award for Outstanding Female Graduating Senior at ONU. She was integral in developing and offering workshops for teachers in the Dominican Republic as part of ONU’s Engineers Without Borders, and she student taught in the Upper Scioto Valley school district.

In a way, the engineering education major’s specialty is its lack of a specialty, the intense education instruction the majors receive not withstanding. From a purely engineering perspective, it requires well-rounded engineers and well-rounded people with a variety of interests.

“I think my major is going to attract new types of students so that people will say, ‘Oh, I never thought you’d be an engineer,’ and not mean it in a bad way.”

Read more Class of 2014 Commencement Stories