Syracuse University Magazine

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Katie Cadwell

Engineering a Path to Success

Chemical engineering professor Katie Cadwell well remembers her days as an undergraduate. She can tell you about fun courses she took (theater and ceramics), her adventures as an international student at the University of Newcastle in Australia, spinning records as a college radio DJ, the challenges of being a transfer student, and how she discovered a love for teaching as a peer tutor. “You know how you try something for the first time and instantly you know, wow, I’m good at this,” the Missouri native says. “I could tell and I liked it. And it was fun.”

Today, as the chemical engineering (CEN) undergraduate program director in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and a teaching-only faculty member, Cadwell carries those experiences with her. And along with her humor, energy, and empathy, they help her connect with students—creating interactions she enjoys and values. “There are a lot of changes, and much of what happens to students is not even really about the material in class,” she says. “It’s about maturing, learning about themselves as people, what they want to do in life, and how to interact with others.”

Cadwell received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science & Technology), then earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), where she researched the behavior of liquid crystals and gained experience as a TA. With her heart set on teaching at the college level, she landed a post-doctoral research associate position doing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and outreach at UW’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center. And when an opportunity arose to teach a preparatory chemistry class at Madison Area Technical College, she accepted. “It was terrifying,” she says. “But I learned a lot about teaching, which is that it’s really hard and takes a lot of preparation.”

From fretting about one negative student evaluation in that first class, Cadwell also learned how much she cared about the students’ success. She taught on the full-time faculty there for several years before accepting an offer from SU in 2011. “Frankly, this is my dream job,” Cadwell says.

One of Cadwell’s trademark teaching experiences is her senior CEN lab course, where she introduces students to the rigors of engineering through a fictitious company she calls Learning Curve Consultants. She poses an open-ended problem the company needs to solve and the students go at it, researching the issue, proposing and conducting experiments, giving progress reports, and making recommendations. The work, she says, helps students learn the importance of communication and collaborating as part of a team. “It’s about trying to shift them into thinking like engineers, not like students, and also to working through problems from scratch on their own,” she says.

Cadwell, whose numerous accolades include a 2015 Teaching Recognition Award from SU’s Meredith Professorship Program, also does professional development seminars, workshops, and presentations on campus and at engineering conferences. She is a proponent of flipped classroom teaching, which emphasizes interaction and team activities, and avoids long lectures like the plague. Her goal, she says, is to keep students motivated, have them gain confidence in their abilities, work hard, and succeed. “I’m interested in helping people do things better,” she says. “A lot of the time, all they really need is the push—for someone to say, ‘You can do it.’”  —Jay Cox


Photo by Susan Kahn