Postdocs

Five Questions with Dr. Medha Dalal who is solving wicked problems

postdoc interview five questions engineering education
By Wiley Larsen on July 27, 2021

1.   Tell us a little about yourself.

I'm a postdoctoral scholar in the Fulton Schools of Engineering.  I received my PhD from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in 2019, from the Learning Literacy and Technology Program, with a focus on engineering education.  My research explores ways of thinking that address complex educational challenges and democratize pre-college engineering education.  Currently, I’m working with Dr. Adam Carberry at the Polytechnic School on an engineering education project called Engineering for Us All.  It's a National Science Foundation-funded project that aims to demystify engineering for high school students, and I’m co-leading the research efforts on that project.  

2.   How did you come to choose ASU?

My educational journey has been very interdisciplinary.  I started with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from India. I came to the United States and did my master's at NYU in computer science.  After that, I worked as a software engineer.  After a few years, I went back to India to be closer to family and started teaching in an engineering college.  And that stint motivated me to do a PhD, so I came back to the United States for doctoral education. 

All higher education institutions are somewhat similar in their core purposes, but ASU definitely differentiates itself in terms of culture. The exposure that it provides to a breadth of social and cultural experiences, as well as to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work and research experiences, stood out and then there was the alignment to core values of equity and access. So those are the things that convinced me that I should apply to ASU. It's not just about student success, but it is also about the access and the success of the community. ASU’s knowledge mobilization initiatives resonated with me.  In fact, I received a Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant last year. 

My own research looks at ways of thinking to solve complex problems, or what we call wicked problems that cannot be solved with a single disciplinary angle.  So that's another reason why, for me, it was important to work with faculty from different disciplines as I was applying to ASU. At ASU, I was able to work with students and faculty from different parts of the university.  On my committee, I had faculty from the Mary Lour Fulton Teachers college, but I also had faculty from the engineering department and that's what made it a very enriching experience.

3.   Tell us about your research.  How do you approach wicked problems and create educational strategies for teaching others to solve wicked problems?

We normally tend to approach problems from either a disciplinary angle or from certain ways of thinking that we are used to but in my research, I propose that we look at any problem from multi-integrated ways of thinking. Specifically, I looked at four ways of thinking that can be combined to approach a problem.  One way is “futures thinking.”  It involves solving the problem, not just looking at the immediate need, but for the next few years, decades, and the next generation.  The second way is “values thinking,” which means trying to solve the problem considering the values of ethics, equity, and social justice. The third approach is “systems thinking.”  Every problem is situated in a bigger context.  It's not just what is sometimes visible to you but also about invisible interrelationships and sub-systems that are at play. Applying the systems thinking perspective is looking at a broader context of the problem. The last one is “strategic thinking.”   Strategic thinking is about creating a plan of action and leveraging the resources for the desired vision. Strategic thinking provides the action for the other ways of thinking.

My current project utilizes all these ways of thinking to solve a complex problem. For example, one thing we often hear about is poor student enrollment and retention in engineering undergraduate programs.  One way to solve the problem is to look at undergraduate engineering education and address these issues at the college level. But, a better way to solve the problem is to look at the feeder systems. This is systems thinking.  So we decided to create a high school-level engineering curriculum to create engineering literacy. The idea was to create awareness among high school students regarding engineering education, the profession, and sub-disciplines so that they make informed decisions about higher education choices. The course is also “for all - open to all students and teachers regardless of their backgrounds. That is values thinking. Rather than making it about math and science, we focused on problem-solving through creativity in design.  The only prerequisite for the course is Algebra I. 

Currently, we are working with 55 high schools and approximately 2000 students, 42% of which are female, 30% Hispanic, and 37% black and African American.  We are also working with teachers who do not have any STEM background.  A teacher I closely work in Arizona is a music teacher who has started teaching engineering design. Last year his students created solar-powered musical instruments and sound barriers for the music room using engineering approaches. It was simply fantastic to see students looking at engineering from all these different angles and applying their creativity.

The research involves not just developing and testing the curriculum but also teacher professional development, the fidelity of implementation, student outcomes, teacher outcomes, and efficacy of learning. Our early research shows that students enjoy the hands-on engineering design projects and develop skills of communication, collaboration, and innovation, and come to appreciate the engineering profession.

4.   What is your dream job?

I definitely see myself continuing my affiliation with ASU in some capacity.  Typically, there is this notion that when you are working for a postdoctoral position you are trying to get to a tenure track position, right?  In my case, that is not the end goal. I envision myself in a research position where I can touch more lives through research. It is so personally rewarding to talk to students in different parts of the United States from different high schools and understand what they are thinking and the challenges they are facing.  So, making a difference is what drives me. 

5.   You're very active with the Early Career Researchers Network (ECRN), helping plan activities and strategy for the postdoc office.  Why should postdocs get involved with ECRN and the postdoc office?

Yes, I am currently the Co-chair of the ECRN.  This reminds me of the presentation that we gave to the new postdocs during orientation.  Connect, serve, create, and advocate, right?  ECRN provides a platform to connect with other postdocs to build relationships, and meet potential collaborators.  But beyond that, it is also a way for giving back to the community by engaging yourself in such a network.  Involvement in ECRN has created a sense of belonging for me because being a postdoc is a very transitional job that comes with a lot of stress and pressure because you are trying to publish your dissertation. You have been hired to work on a new project but you are also looking for another permanent position, so being involved in the ECRN activities has been anchoring for me.

And the last thing I would say is advocate!  To me, this is also about making a difference and making your voice heard.  The upcoming Arizona Postdoctoral Research Conference is a great example. As a co-chair, I was able to help decide on the theme for the conference. In the past, it has just been a research conference, but we wanted to bring in awareness about equity and inclusion.  So we provided a theme for the conference and arranged for the keynote speaker who will speak to equity and inclusion in all research. 

I think these are little things but they are steps toward making a deliberate change.  That's how I look at it, and so I think, ECRN provides a great platform for these opportunities.