Stanford mechanical engineer Sheri Sheppard named U.S. professor of the year

Sheri Sheppard receives a national honor for her innovative approach to teaching undergraduate students in a hands-on, problem-solving way that transforms large classes into small group learning laboratories.

Video by Tom Abate and Vignesh Ramachandran

Stanford mechanical engineering Professor Sheri Sheppard, who has studied how to attract diverse students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, was named 2014 U.S. Professor of the Year for doctoral and research universities by the Carnegie Foundation.

Sheri Sheppard, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, today was named U.S. Professor of the Year for doctoral and research universities.

The U.S. Professors of the Year awards are sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and administered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

Created in 1981, the awards are the only nationwide initiatives specifically designed to highlight excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

"We are extremely pleased that Sheri Sheppard has now been recognized nationally for her effort," said John Etchemendy, Stanford's provost and the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences. "We are very proud that a member of Stanford's faculty has been named with this distinguished honor."

Sheppard is scheduled to receive her award today at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., along with three other professors who were similarly honored in their categories: community colleges, baccalaureate colleges and colleges that offer master's degrees.

John Lippincott, the president of CASE, said the winners challenged students by approaching teaching and learning in new and compelling ways.

"These professors eschew traditional lectures and rote memorization drills and instead favor a more research-focused approach to pedagogy," Lippincott said.

This year's winners were chosen from a pool of nearly 400 nominees and were selected by an independent panel of judges based on four criteria: impact on, and involvement with, undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former students.

Sheppard, the Burton J. and Deedee McMurtry University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said she was humbled by the award. She thanked her many collaborators over the years, including those from the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning, for helping her to create a learning-by-doing classroom environment that gives beginning engineers problem-solving experience.

"Today's modern engineering work, more so than ever, is about being on teams, and so educators more and more are thinking about how to bring those team experiences into the classroom," Sheppard said in a video highlighting her work.

Harry J. Elam, Stanford's Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities, led the team of Stanford colleagues who nominated Sheppard. They cited her prior teaching research, including her leadership of a three year-study titled "Educating Engineers," which was carried out under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Among previous honors, Sheppard received the 2010 Stanford Walter J. Gores Award, the university's highest honor for excellence in teaching.

Robyn Wright Dunbar, the university's associate vice provost for undergraduate education and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, said the national award will focus attention on Sheppard's innovations, such as breaking her large introductory mechanical engineering class into pods and training her teaching assistants to help her lead in-class problem-solving exercises.

"She has students building and talking and constructing together from the get-go," Dunbar said. "They're developing engineering expertise, not waiting until they know enough stuff, but developing engineering expertise from the beginning."

Sheppard received her doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1985 and joined the Stanford faculty a year later as an assistant professor, rising to associate professor in 1993 and full professor in 2005.

For more than 20 years Sheppard has studied how to attract and train young engineers. This has involved initiatives sponsored by the National Science Foundation, including the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (2003 to 2009.) More recently she teamed up with Tom Byers, an entrepreneurship professor in the Stanford School of Engineering, to create the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter), which began in 2011 and runs through 2016.

Sheppard is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). In 2004 she received the ASEE Chester F. Carlson Award in recognition of distinguished accomplishment in engineering education. She also won the ASEE Wickenden Best Journal of Engineering Education Paper awards in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

"It's totally amazing to watch the teacher come out of the students you're working with, and to think that maybe you've got some small part in that," Sheppard said. "I find teaching challenging and very often fun and without a doubt the most wonderful part of my work."

Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, noted the "extraordinary leadership" of the 2014 award winners.

"Each of our awardees … brings extraordinary leadership not just to their classrooms, but to their departments, colleges and universities, and their respective professional fields," Bryk said.

Tom Abate, Stanford Engineering: (650) 736-2245,