KEEN Engineering Unleashed Fellow a force in teaching

Emmy Tomforde, who teaches thermodynamics, statics and more in the College of Engineering and Technology, is Grand Canyon University's second KEEN Engineering Unleashed Fellow.

Emmy Tomforde is GCU's second professor to earn the distinction

Photos by Ralph Freso

Emmy Tomforde was one of three Grand Canyon University engineering professors who dressed as Waldo of “Where’s Waldo” fame for Halloween a few years ago. They wanted to give students a moment of pause as they pondered how Waldo could be in so many places.

But playing dress-up isn’t limited to professors.

Tomforde a few semesters later was surprised by her students, who decided to go to class dressed as her for Halloween.

It’s how much they love the mechanical engineering instructor.

It’s also a testament to how much she loves teaching, something the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network is celebrating by awarding her recently with a KEEN Engineering Unleashed Fellowship.

Emmy's work is the best of the best as identified by her peers

Dr. Douglas Melton, KEEN Program Director for the Kern Family Foundation

Tomforde teaches thermodynamics, statics and dynamics, fluid/thermal transport, power generation “and whatever else sounds like fun.” She is the second GCU engineering educator in the past two years to receive the fellowship, which comes with a $10,000 grant to advance her work in the classroom.

Dr. Michael De Gregorio, assistant dean of engineering in the College of Engineering and Technology, earned the first fellowship in 2022.

"Emmy has a great rapport with students. Students tend to seek her out for her energy and teaching style," said De Gregorio. "It is not really a surprise that she was named an Engineering Unleashed Fellow. She has fantastic presence in the classroom and is dedicated to serving students."

Tomforde is one of 30 educators from 24 higher education institutions across the country this year to be recognized with the fellowship, which celebrates leadership in undergraduate engineering education and fosters an entrepreneurial mindset.

“Recognition and selection as a fellow represent less than 10% of the overall faculty development participants, so Emmy’s work is the best of the best as identified by her peers,” shared Dr. Douglas Melton, KEEN Program Director for the Kern Family Foundation.

The foundation has previously supported GCU with a $3.2 million grant to develop an accelerated pastoral training program in 2019, as well as a $2.27 million grant in 2022 to enhance character education in K-12 schools.

Also, biomedical engineering professor Dr. Kyle Jones was named a KEEN Rising Star last year.

The fellowship, De Gregorio said, "is a great opportunity to help us to grow as a department and make sure that we are continuing our dedication to active engineering education."

Tomforde’s road to the fellowship began in Atlanta over the summer. She was part of the Engineering Unleashed Problem-Solving Studio, a workshop to spark engineering faculty to create a significant change in the learning environment of their classrooms.

Tomforde created a learning module that involves teaching the method of joints in a more interactive way. Her activity involves students determining the forces on the joints of a Ferris wheel.

“Other professors from all over the country were there. We talked about how to get students to learn problem-solving techniques,” said Tomforde from her office on the third floor of the Engineering building, where equation-filled posters and sticky notes were mounted on the back of her office door. They were the remnants of the classroom activity she created as part of the Problem-Solving Studio.

“I learned so much. It was the middle of the summer, but I was so excited to get back in the classroom. I thought, ‘I want to go teach now and try all these things I just learned.’”

Now, as the academic year starts to steamroll, she’s doing just that.

As part of the Problem-Solving Studio – a perfect fit for Tomforde, who wanted to become an engineer because “I LOVE solving problems – participants had to develop a learning module that encapsulates a teaching activity they developed.

They then share those learning modules with the Engineering Unleashed community of more than 5,000 engineering faculty, staff and administrators who can adopt those activities in their own classrooms.

Tomforde’s contribution: “Statics Truss Structures: Method of Joints Gallery Walk.”

She wanted to take what’s normally something students in her statics classes might not find so fun and make it more interactive.

She honed in on the method of joints, an analysis technique to find the forces in the members of a truss. The idea is to be able to calculate the loads on structures like bridges and roofs. Students look at each truss joint individually using particle equilibrium equations.

Typically, students diagram and write equations for them, “and it turns into this long, repetitive thing,” Tomforde said. “So I thought, why not divide and conquer?”

With this activity, she has each of six tables of students in her classroom draw a diagram on a sticky note that they paste onto a poster, “that way I get them to get up and get moving a little bit,” she said.

“Then I kind of pull a switcheroo, where I say, ‘Grab somebody else’s Post-It, and now you have to write the equations based on that. So all of a sudden there’s some panic because it’s like, ‘Oh no, my diagram needs to communicate to someone else.’”

Students are not given the original problem on which the sticky-note diagrams are based, so it forces students to communicate with each other using only those diagrams. Once students come up with equations to match the diagrams, they return to the poster to add those equations.

“So then it becomes a gallery walk, where all the students can walk around and look at different posters,” Tomforde said.

They look at which equations might be the easiest to solve first, then analyze everything going on at Joint B, then Joint C and on and on, working backward collaboratively to solve a problem. The goal is, by the end of the activity, for the students to have come up with a full set of equations.

Rather than talking at students from a whiteboard, “I thought of it being like going from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side, where they’re in charge of their own learning.”

Tomforde also added an entrepreneurial element to her activity.

“I wanted to change it from a boring statics truss problem. … I thought, why does it need to be a bridge? It can be a Ferris wheel.”

Once students solve for all the forces, they’re directed to determine how much the material will cost to build the Ferris wheel, what the break-even point might be and whether students will need to consider other stakeholders when designing the structure.

Tomforde hopes to publish a paper detailing the results of her engineering-minded gallery walk and present it at a future KEEN workshop.

When you ask Tomforde how she came up with her gallery walk idea and if she has an arts background, she says she does, though it’s not the kind anyone might think.

She is a ballroom dancer and, after receiving her master’s in mechanical engineering and working as a research and teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she ended up as an English tutor in Taiwan.

What got her there was a ballroom dancing partnership opportunity.

Ballroom dancing aside, when Tomforde talks about teaching, her eyes light up: “Oh my gosh! There’s a lot (I love about teaching). When I see that lightbulb moment go off after working with a student struggling with it, and then all of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh! I get it! I want to do more problems like that,’” it inspires her.

“A close second would be when my alumni call me: ‘Hey, Professor Tomforde, I got that job!’ When you hear that, it’s pretty cool.”

Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU News: KEEN honoree drives excellence in teaching

GCU NewsKern grant launches Character Education Center


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