Cristi Bell-Huff was pursuing her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Purdue University when her thesis advisor said something that has stuck with her — though she tried to ignore it at first.
“He told me, ‘I think you would be a really good teacher,’” said Bell-Huff, lecturer and the director of faculty and student training in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “But I was like, ‘No, I’m going into industry, I’m going to make the big bucks.’”
She pauses, chuckling at the memory and adds, “He was definitely onto something there.”
Bell-Huff did go into the pharmaceutical industry for a while, eventually leaving the job to stay at home with her young children. Then she accepted an offer to work as an adjunct instructor at a small college teaching classes at night. And that was it.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to be involved in education,” Bell-Huff said. “My years in industry, helping to develop life-changing medications — that was all very meaningful for me. But I knew that I’d found my calling.”
Since that part-time job teaching evening classes about 20 years ago, Bell-Huff has taught and mentored scientists and engineers of all ages, including at Lawrence Technological University, where she was director of the Studio for Entrepreneurial Engineering Design.
She joined Coulter BME in 2018, impressed with the Department’s story-driven learning approach to teaching. “They were doing really innovative things with teaching and learning and fostering an entrepreneurial mindset,” she said.
The entrepreneurial mindset concept already was in Bell-Huff’s wheelhouse, something she’d been cultivating at Lawrence Tech which, like Georgia Tech, is a member of the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN). This nationwide partnership of more than 50 colleges has one mission: bring the entrepreneurial mindset to undergraduate engineering education.
So in 2020, when KEEN granted its Rising Star Awards, Bell-Huff was a natural choice for “connecting design practices to engineering for her students to benefit local community members, and implementing vertically integrated, story-driven, entrepreneurially minded learning curriculum,” according to the organization.
In the Coulter Department, Bell-Huff has taken a leadership role in BME’s story-driven learning approach, which is expanding to other engineering and entrepreneurship programs across the Georgia Tech campus with $3.1 million in support from the Kern Family Foundation. In the Coulter Department, she’s helped to create two new courses, including BMED 4000, The Art of Telling Your Story, now a required course in the BME curriculum.
“She’s a masterful teacher who cares deeply about students, and not just over how much they’re learning in her classroom; she cares about them as individuals, she wants to understand how they’re doing personally,” said Joe Le Doux, executive director of training and learning in the Coulter Department. “She does the best that she can to get to know each and every one of her students.”
Some of those students, and Le Doux, guest star in a new video profile of Bell-Huff. Created by Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering for KEEN, the video was to premiere at the virtual KEEN Leader Meeting Sept. 30. The idea is to share her story with the 100 or so leaders from other KEEN partner institutions who will be attending.
It’s the face-to-face stories — before and during the age of Covid masks — that have resonated with Bell-Huff: “Students who come back and say, ‘I went to my med school interview and told a story about my Capstone Design project,’ or ‘I told a story about the first time I saw a beating heart.’ You know, they come back to tell me they nailed the interview,” she said.
Through a story-driven approach, students not only learn how to connect the dots of their own lives and experiences. They learn how to really listen to the stories of others. It’s an integral part of what Bell-Huff calls, “empathy-focused, user-oriented design.”
In addition to the Rising Star Award, Bell-Huff is working with support from the National Science Foundation to research the impact of story-driven learning on the development of empathy in engineering students. And she’s using the $25,000 Rising Star Award to create a story-driven learning experience for students from four other KEEN member schools — Arizona State, Duke University, James Madison University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
It’s called Exploring LegaCs. Every Wednesday, 24 students from schools around the country meet virtually to share their stories, talk about why they became engineers, or discuss the defining moments of their lives.
Bell-Huff asks them to think about how they’ve been uniquely shaped to create value in the world and to think about the legacy they want to leave behind — the story they want to tell with their life’s work.
Tough questions. Deep. But ask Bell-Huff, and she only hesitates a moment.
“The story I would want to tell is how I tried to help students reach their full potential as engineers, and embrace their responsibility to use their technical skills for creating value. I’m not talking about money; I mean solving problems that help people and society, that better the human race.”