Graduate Facilitator Spotlight: Robert Loweth

Robert Loweth has been a Graduate Facilitator with the Center for Socially Engaged Design since the program began in 2018. In all of his work in and outside of C-SED, Robert wants to expand boundaries and make engineering more inclusive. He is driven by his passion for teaching and social justice – values that will continue to shape how he approaches design and engineering education as he completes his degree in Spring 2022. 

Robert sat down with Storyteller Malin Andersson to share his C-SED story in his own words:

Story by Malin Andersson

How/why did you become involved with C-SED?

Oh, that’s a story! The short version is that I was working with Shanna Daly, one of the faculty co-founders of C-SED. The day I walked in the door at U-M, she was giving me a lot of work related to C-SED particularly in what is now the learning blocks of the Socially Engaged Design Academy. After my first year, they started up the graduate facilitators program to ramp up C-SED’s capacity to serve students, deliver workshops, and offer consultation – stuff like that. And I thought this looks like a great opportunity for me to get to work with students and gain teaching experience. So I was part of that initial cohort with Ilka, who is also still in my lab here. We will graduate together in May. 

Could you describe your role as a graduate facilitator? 

The big summary is that I teach, develop content, and provide miscellaneous support for students as needed. 

I do a lot of things that go beyond the typical facilitator role because I’ve been one for  so long and as a PhD student, a lot of the research I do intersects with C-SED. In my role, I facilitate workshops in both curricular and co-curricular settings – from topics such as conducting interviews or stakeholder mapping. For a curricular setting, I prepare the lecture slides and activities we’d use to deliver that topic. Co-curricular projects tend to focus on a workshop. There are lots of opportunities here to be more hands-on with the team’s particular project.

I used to be one of the main people supporting SEDA, though I do not play not as big of a part anymore. Towards the beginning of my time as a facilitator, I used to grade portions of the learning blocks such as a knowledge check or application task. Nowadays, students just want a workshop. But there’s a SEDA 2.0 that’s under development which I’ve been involved in to some extent. 

What’s a new project you’ve been excited about? 

There’s a Sustainability/Social Justice working group that we want to integrate into C-SED’s curriculum. Students ask all the time how to make their envision a more just future and promote sustainability in their projects. We’ve been developing content to support these questions. We’re thinking about the ways engineering work impacts society and how, if you’re not thinking as a designer, those impacts can be racist, sexist, abilist, etc. We want to provide something to guide students through these issues in greater depth.

What are the main differences between your role at the beginning versus your role now? 

At the beginning, it was very facilitation focused. When I came in, we also didn’t know what the role was going to be yet! It was very self-directed. A lot of it was up to the four of us facilitators at the time. We had all taken Shanna Daly’s Front End Design class which is the baseline where a lot of our content comes from. Ilka and I also would draw from our research as well. The first year especially was like going out into the wild. 

As we’ve started branching out recently beyond mechanical engineering (ie. the core faculty, their students, and design science) to ask who can be a facilitator. We’ve also been rethinking what sort of support facilitators need,  like a script or other materials that can scaffold what it means to be teaching as opposed to relying on the natural teaching ability and knowledge that people we’ve hired. I think this is a very positive development because it lowers the barriers to bring in new people and different perspectives. 

How have you been able to navigate adjusting your role to life in “COVID times?” 

I’m one of those people that’s always been go-with-the-flow. You ask me to do something and I’ll figure it out. Though ambiguity is sometimes anxiety-inducing, I am comfortable in ambiguity. To be perfectly honest, a lot of that probably relates to my identity as a white man from a position of relative financial security and educational advantage. Actually getting to that finish line for me is not the same as what other people might be experiencing. It’s easier for me to navigate adversity – especially related to COVID. 

What can students come to talk to you about (areas of passion/expertise)?

Everything and anything. At this point, literally everything. If I don’t know, I feel pretty confident at pointing people in the direction of someone else who would be an expert. For example, I would be happy to talk to you about identity development in engineering but I can always forward you onto Kaylla because that’s her expertise! But the core criteria is definitely something I can talk about having taught over 60 workshops over the 3 ½ years I’ve been here.  I especially like the early stages of projects because I like thinking through stuff. 

What are some of your hobbies and interests? 

I sometimes joke that C-SED is my hobby. Jokes aside, I like basketball a lot. I was born and raised in North Carolina so I grew up watching UNC. Obviously we didn’t have much of a team, but they made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament my senior year.  I was actually at both of those games which was pretty exciting. So, I go to a lot of basketball and football games. But you know football is not that exciting because we win the games we were supposed to and lose the games we are supposed to lose. 

I also like to go camping. I went camping with Kaylla, one of the other facilitators who is not-so-secretly one of my best friends in Ann Arbor. We went to Nordhouse Dunes. (The interview devolved into a talk about camping in Michigan so talk to Robert for location recommendations!)

How did you come to major in East Asian Studies in undergrad? 

I really like learning languages although it’s not the area in which I necessarily excel… But Yale throws a bunch of money at learning East Asian languages in their country of origin and I actually ended up going over there twice – once after my freshman year and then, once between undergrad and graduate school. I was taking all these Chinese language classes and I like history so I decided to throw in some history classes and make it a major. 

I don’t use my Chinese in any of the C-SED stuff I do but I believe that the experiences that came with that degree provided a lot of the intellectual tools that I use to recognize how structures like identity formation play into engineering work. A big part of engineering education research is around identifying the structures through which students navigate as part of their education and how instructors play into that experience. You have to think about the context a designer is operating in as well as its influence on their identity. A lot of my East Asian Studies work has given me the intellectual tools to see that bigger picture. 

What drew you to this role?

I really like teaching. That’s a big part of it. I’d say C-SED, probably more than anything else, is one of my formative experiences where I’ve realized I enjoy teaching – and I’m good at it! I’ve had the opportunity to develop my teaching skills. Especially as I’m applying to jobs, my teaching philosophy comes out of the ways that I like to approach my time as a graduate facilitator. Curricular and co-curricular workshops especially are one of my favorite parts. Even though I haven’t had the opportunity to do it as much in the past year, interfacing with teams has been one of my favorite parts.

Any unexpected parts of the job that surprised you?

It might not be unexpected, but C-SED is a really cool community. It’s been really interesting to see where people come from. Also, we tend to hire cool people. I feel like C-SED has developed a pretty good knack thus far for identifying people who would be able to contribute and also push the boundaries of the system. 

In general, C-SED as an organization is aware of where their learning edge is and are willing to push it. For instance, the leadership is very white (which also just reflects the general academic structures in which we’re situated) but there has been a concerted effort to recognize how we as an organization can be better – especially as it relates to design. You can’t train designers to be better and actually think about a broader societal context if you’re not thinking about the societal context that you’re situated in as well. Maybe the surprising part is that C-SED, being within an academic organization, is actually willing to engage with these ideas. I’ve seen a lot of the opposite in general academia. 

What is one project you enjoy working on?

I have really enjoyed the Sustainability/Social Justice working group. It’s been the place to have conversations about what it means to envision design based on sustainability and justice. I’m definitely one of those people who like thinking about the big picture. Coming up with ideas and having the room to explore is the part that gives me energy. In general, I enjoy projects where I can engage with ideas about the bigger picture and the Sustainability/Social Justice working group has been that project. 

What do you like most about working at C-SED? What makes C-SED special?

One of the needs that I think C-SED fills, especially within engineering education, is it provides a place for the many students who come through wanting to use their engineering knowledge in a way that benefits the world. The language I’ve been using a lot of my teaching is around positive cycle changes. Many students envision positive change but don’t necessarily know how to get there and their engineering education is not necessarily teaching them either. C-SED asks us to think about our own identities as engineers in the design process. We are encouraged to think about the bigger social, cultural, political, environmental, and economic picture in which the work we do is situated. C-SED helps answer the question: “what is relevant to my engineering work and, more specifically, how do I bring that knowledge in?” Students are looking for guidance and aren’t consistently getting it from at least their regular curricular opportunities. C-SED steps into that role of supporting students that are interested in this kind of work by providing a framework throughout their experience where they’re actually able to engage with the broader societal context of being a designer.

How has your career path developed over time? 

There’s a funny story here in that I didn’t really intend to go to graduate school. I majored in Engineering Sciences and East Asian Studies at Yale and thought, if I still wanted to become an engineer, I’d just go get a Master’s in it. Fast forward to senior year – I sent out a bunch of masters apps and Michigan actually came back like “Hey, do you want to do a Ph.D.?” I didn’t even realize that was an option! I was just like, “cool. Thanks!”

So I ended up coming here as a Ph.D. student knowing that I wanted to be a practitioner and actually do some design work (not that I really knew what that meant at the time). Since I’ve been here, I’ve shifted towards a tenure track academic position as the direction I want to go. I like my research and I like teaching – two things that have been closely tied up with C-SED. Without C-SED, I don’t know if I would have necessarily shifted so strongly towards a tenure track as the position I want to be when I graduate. That definitely was not the intent coming in. 

What is a social justice topic you are passionate about and why?

As a future faculty member and someone who is about the graduate, I’ve been thinking a lot about how there are a lot of ways that entering education is super discriminatory and exclusive. Historically, it has only been accepting of people like me (white male from a background of financial and educational privilege). 

The more that I’ve been in academia, the more those structures have become apparent to me. A great example is grading. Grading on a curve just serves to put a band-aid over the fact that your instructor probably isn’t that good. If they’re setting you up for success, you wouldn’t be failing and a curved grade wouldn’t be necessary. A lot of that is just how you’re structuring your class, the way you’re teaching topics, and what your homework assignments look like. Do you even need homework assignments versus projects that actually have something to do with your lived experience? 

Another big part is mentorship. There are a lot of ways that white faculty, even well-intentioned, don’t understand that there’s a reason that you don’t necessarily see a ton of faculty who are people of color: they get weeded out to their graduate programs through a chilly climate and advisors who don’t necessarily know how to support them effectively. 

Not to get on my high horse like I’m going to fix the system itself, but I do think that there’s a unique role that I can potentially play in creating spaces where everyone is able to succeed. I have the unique opportunity as a tenure track faculty member that can honestly get away with challenging the traditional structures because people look at me and assume that I’m competent so they don’t ask too many questions. 

The short answer to your question is that the intersection of social justice in engineering education is something that I am passionate about. The way that we educate engineers is not the way that it needs to be. There’s a lot that can be done differently just at the level of individual instructors that can go a long way in making engineering education more just and equity-focused. And everything I was just saying applies to designers as well. 

Check out Robert’s office hours to talk more about basketball, how he “accidentally” went to grad school, or anything design-related!

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