2018 Winner: Outstanding Leaders Of Tomorrow sponsored by Alberta Economic Development And Trade
Inspiring creativity in future engineers
Emily Marasco is an established leader in engineering, educational and social innovation. Her research has had a significant impact on technical engineering education at the Schulich School of Engineering. Ms. Marasco’s community involvement extends into her work as an education specialist with EZ-Robot, as a board member for the University of Calgary Academic Women’s Association and as the chair of the Engineering Students Education Society.
What problem did you see a need to solve and how did you solve this real-world problem?
All my roles involve engineering education, whether I’m doing research or teaching at the Schulich School of Engineering or hosting webisodes for EZ-Robot.
In my research, I’m looking at how we can make engineers more creative. Engineers deal with very innovative problems and they’re trying to find solutions to problems that have never been seen before in the field. We’re looking at facing problems with electronics, software and hardware and these are things that we’ve never seen before in history. I’m working on a development program and pedagogical framework to train our engineering students to develop their creative thinking and to integrate it with their technical skills. You must be able to combine both.
That really ties well into the outreach because when I ask grade five students what an engineer does, the number one response is, “he fixes cars”. We still have this misconception that engineering is masculine, engineering is repair work and students often think it’s boring, it’s hard, it’s too challenging, and they don’t see it as something that they themselves would consider.
By developing the creative side of engineering, we can show students they can be innovative and solve world problems by combining engineering with their different interests and hobbies. You could be a musician and you can help the field of engineering interface with music. It ties nicely with EZ–Robot because I have robotic applications and I get to show kids and hobbyists that what they build with robots can really influence the world.
What has been the impact?
The biggest impact evolves around getting students excited about engineering. In the past, I was working on activities with grade five students, showing them about electrical engineering and teaching them about electricity. They previously thought of engineering as building a circuit. They don’t really know what a circuit does, but they had a battery, some lights, some wires to connect it together. I had them create circuit artwork. I saw students getting creative. There was a dragon whose eyes lit up; there was an urban cityscape and they lit up the streetlights and the stars. They saw that whatever pops into their imagination, they can create it with circuits.
In engineering, we want to provide the chance to be imaginative and creative. I want them to think about how they can redesign that cityscape. Instead of a dragon, maybe we’re looking at a prosthetic or an animatronic. In engineering, we’re taking it a step further, and this is how we get them engaged.
Has being in Alberta helped you find success?
It’s been great to see the different connections made in Calgary and Alberta. I see a lot of strength when we connect Schulich to industry and to various non-profits. We‘ve got a great science centre, we’ve got Beakerhead and we’ve got a lot of great programs throughout Alberta. With my first-year university students, a lot of them chose to come to Calgary to study engineering because they know Calgary and Schulich have a good reputation; they want to be here and are really enthusiastic about engineering.
Who have been your major supporters?
I have a funny story about how I met my first mentor in engineering.
I wasn’t sure about studying engineering when I came out of high school. I can remember sitting in my first-year classes thinking, “I don’t know, is this for me?” I was also doing a minor in music as I play the oboe. The oboe has a double reed, which is two pieces of cane put together. When you get to a professional level, you make your own reeds using a special knife to scrape the cane into the right shape.
So I’m sitting in my first year design course, not sure about engineering. My professor walks out onto the podium in the big lecture hall and he starts talking about how he had a career as a professional musician before he went back to university to become an engineer. Now he has taken his musical knowledge and his knowledge in mechanical engineering and combined the two. It turns out he invented a popular knife used to make oboe reeds.
Here he was, the inventor of something I’d used and he was my engineering professor in Calgary. It was just so exciting! He became a mentor for me about combining engineering and music. I didn’t know, coming out of high school, that engineering was so applicable to all different subject areas. Another professor built on that mentorship by advancing that research further and suggesting grad school.
My current supervisor is also a really great mentor. She introduced me to a whole different world of engineering education, with a lot of opportunities to mentor younger students and opportunities to speak internationally. That’s been exciting.
What are the plans for the future?
I’m set to defend my thesis shortly, so that is my immediate future goal. After that I’m going to continue to teach at Schulich as well as work full time for EZ–Robot. I’m really excited about EZ–Robot because it’s a chance for me to merge my technical side, my education side and also a little bit of outreach to show people how exciting teaching and engineering can be.
How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?
To be an ASTech finalist is really a great honour. There’re a lot of people across all the categories who are very accomplished and have done a lot of important things with a real impact on society. I’m excited to share my story and see how it influences others.