It was 2008, and Joe Le Doux already was tenured in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. One of the Department’s first faculty hires 10 years earlier, his research was focused on using viruses to transfer genes to cells. Gene therapy. Potentially trailblazing stuff.
Meh. So what.
“When are you going to figure out what you really should be doing with your life,” Le Doux recalls Wendy Newstetter pointedly asked him, chuckling when he thinks about it today. Tenure. Gene therapy. Big deal.
For a few years leading up to that conversation, he’d been working a lot with Newstetter, a learning and cognitive scientist, on developing courses in the Department, “and somewhere along the line, she had figured out that I should be focusing more on learning science, and in a scholarly way,” said Le Doux, now executive director of training and learning in the Coulter Department.
“That’s what Wendy does,” he added. “She asks the right questions, and she knows how to critically review what’s happening – what works, or what doesn’t. She’s been a key influence on me and the direction my career has taken.”
For more than 20 years, Newstetter has been the steady chief architect of the Coulter Department’s innovative problem-driven learning (PDL) curriculum. This year begins a new era for her — and for the Coulter Department — as Newstetter steps into her version of retirement, leaving behind her full-time role as Assistant Dean for Educational Research and Innovation in the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.
“I’ve had the opportunity to spend 20 years working with some of the most creative, thoughtful, and ambitious people, and it has been a great ride,” she told a virtual audience of 120-plus in December during the inaugural Newstetter Distinguished Lecture, a new annual event started in her honor. “I can’t imagine a better place to spend that time. I was given a ridiculous amount of freedom to do crazy, fun, innovative things.”
Along the way, Newstetter and a team of engineering educators have merged problem-driven engineering education with learning science principles to create a pioneering and evolving curriculum that has been developing inquisitive biomedical engineering leaders for two decades.
Their sustained efforts and accomplishments in that regard have not gone unnoticed by their peers. In 2019, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) selected them for with the $500,000 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education. Newstetter, Le Doux, and Coulter Department Senior Associate Chair Paul Benkeser shared the prestigious honor.
“Wendy and the Department really were at the leading edge of an evolution in engineering education, and the Gordon Prize is a testament to that,” said Don Giddens, former dean of engineering at Georgia Tech and the founding chair of the Coulter Department who tapped Newstetter to lead the design of BME’s curriculum. “That was one of the best decisions I made in my life.”
Learning in the Wild
After earning an undergraduate degree in Asian studies from Colby College, Newstetter spent two years in Japan, “learning to speak good Japanese, and at the same time, I started teaching English and had a chance to observe the difficulties people had when learning to speak a second language. It intrigued me.”
She went back to school for a master’s and Ph.D. in linguistics, “with a focus on, basically, teaching language. Over the years, I became fascinated with how people learn, or don’t learn. I became really interested in the conditions under which people learn, and the conditions that you can create as a designer of learning environments that will hopefully ensure a greater number of people become successful learners.”
Shortly after the Coulter Department was founded, Giddens became aware of the learning and cognitive scientists working in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing: Newstetter and her colleague, Nancy Nersessian. Newstetter has called Nersessian, Regents Professor of Cognitive Science Emerita at Georgia Tech and a Harvard researcher, her mentor. They met with Giddens in 1998.
“We sat across the table from each other, Don and Nancy and I, and Don started the meeting by graciously but somewhat sheepishly confiding that he did not know what cognitive science was,” Newstetter recalled. “We reassured him by saying that we did not know what biomedical engineering was. That’s how our 22-year partnership began.”
Newstetter and Nersessian embedded themselves in four distinctly different labs, like anthropologists living with and observing exotic tribes in the wild, studying the culture. “We had two main questions,” Newstetter said. “What is the nature of cognition, and what does learning look like? My intention was to figure out what I could take from this real-world learning environment and translate, with as much fidelity as possible, into a classroom environment. How do we make our synthetic learning, the classroom, replicate what goes on in research labs?”
Newstetter and Nersessian co-authored an award-winning book on their work in the research labs, with Lisa Osbeck, and Kareen Malone. Science as Psychology: Sense-Making and Identity in Science Practice won the American Psychological Association William James Book Award. And what started as a single PBL class is now a suite of carefully designed engineering learning courses in the Coulter Department.
Process over Product
Paul Benkeser has been working with Newstetter for the past 20 years and, like Le Doux, his main interests aren’t quite what they used to be. When he joined the BME department, shortly after it was formed, his research focused on cancer biology and regenerative medicine.
Before long, though, “I was working with Wendy, trying to help her put her ideas into form and structure, trying to figure out how we could transform what had been designed for a medical school education into one targeting biomedical engineers,” Benkeser said.
In the problem-based learning environment, students divide into teams and work together to solve a complex, open-ended, real-world problem – the kind of challenge they might face in a research lab. The answers to their questions may not be available in their past experiences or classes.
“You aren’t going to know everything, and what you don’t know, you have to learn and get up to speed,” Benkeser said. “As instructors, we are more interested in the problem-solving process than in the final product. That can be a challenge for students who have always been graded on product. For many, it’s an unfamiliar learning space at first.”
But it turns out to be an empowering one, Newstetter has found.
“The typical course doesn’t empower students,” Newstetter said. “It tells the student to read Chapter 3 and there will be a quiz on Thursday. That takes power away from students. Instead, we’re saying, ‘Here’s a big problem. It needs to be constrained; it needs to be defined.’ Then the students figure out what they need to learn to solve that problem. It’s dramatically different.”
Her colleagues, like Benkeser and Le Doux, tend to agree. So do her students.
Maria Liu was a teaching assistant in Newstetter’s BME 2250 course in Fall 2020. Liu took the course herself the fall semester of her sophomore year.
“This was the class that made me excited to be part of the BME program,” said Liu, now a third-year undergraduate. “It was the first time I was proud and excited to talk about what I was learning in school and what I was working on.”
That semester, Liu’s class was working on gait and balance disorders. They ultimately created a medical device for Parkinson’s patients. When she was part of the small army of TAs guiding students last semester, the core problem was health related disparities. Working closely with her professor gave Liu a deeper appreciation of Newstetter — and what the Coulter Department and Georgia Tech will be missing with her retirement.
“Her passion, her research, her life’s work is centered around her students and how we learn,” Liu said. “She has done so much in her career and had so many experiences, and yet she chooses to spend her time with students who are just starting their careers to provide them with direction. We will genuinely miss her and her presence as BME students at Georgia Tech.”
Newstetter is retiring — but she won’t be very far away. For one thing, there is the Newstetter Lecture, which will focus on innovation in engineering education. That’s part of her legacy, and so is the spread of PBL programs around the world.
“She’s had a huge impact on Georgia Tech and Emory, and a huge impact on BME education in general, not just locally and nationally, but internationally,” Giddens said.
Also, Newstetter said she still has plenty of research to do and papers to write. And other schools across Georgia Tech want to learn more from the learning expert — including how to be funny.
“I’m working with a collaborator in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,” she said. “We got a grant from the National Science Foundation to infuse humor into the chemical engineering curriculum.”