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Sheri Sheppard: It’s joyful to struggle with new concepts and learn

The professor of mechanical engineering shares her journey and her joy in discovery, teaching, family and in helping her students embrace who they are.

Sheri Sheppard: It’s joyful to struggle with new concepts and learn

July 8, 2021

Sheri Sheppard, the Richard W. Weiland Professor in the School of Engineering

Sheri Sheppard, the Richard W. Weiland Professor in the School of Engineering, grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and was particularly inspired by her mother, a teacher; and her physician grandmother – plus a sister 13 years her senior who became one of only five female bank examiners at the time.

Because of them, Sheppard never saw working and raising a family as impossible. Sheppard, a professor of mechanical engineering, forged a career path marked by extensive stints in industry, a love of teaching and meaningful research while embracing motherhood and family life.

An unexpected direction, a deal with Dad

Engineering was a late discovery for me. I found math and science intriguing and fun – but I was a serious violinist and pianist through the twelfth grade. Musical conservatories were my next step. Then I started to ask myself if I’d make it as a concert violinist and I thought, Eh, maybe it’s time to look at some other options.

I was very good at debate and arguing – and thanks to LA Law,a popular legal TV drama at the time, I was also quite taken with the idea of wearing tidy little suits and defending criminals. My dad, a metallurgist, heard this plan and made me a deal: If I studied undergraduate engineering, he would pay for law school.

But my first engineering class dinged my confidence. I was the only woman in the class and I remember the professor was talking about stress, strain and cantilever beams. It was completely unfamiliar terminology and I was convinced every guy there already knew it. I called my dad to say, “I’m already lost.” He very helpfully suggested I could come home and get my carhop job back if I really felt that way.

I stuck it out and a class or two later, a slightly older student raised his hand and told the professor, “I don’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.” It was a real aha moment for me: These other guys didn’t get it either! Asking questions was what it was all about. Over time, I realized it can be joyful to struggle with fresh concepts, learn and reason about the world in new ways.

This was a key time for me on the personal front as well. My junior year, the engineering and nursing societies had a date match. For a dollar, you’d fill out a paper-based form and they’d match you with a couple of guys. The first name on my list was Ed; I was the first name on his too. We talked for three hours the first time he called and went out for lunch the next day. But a week after we got our lists of names, they were recalled because of a bug in the match program and we were given new lists. We weren’t on each other’s that time around. But something clearly went right: We’ve been married for 43 years now.

Fun in factories

During that same time, I got a scholarship from General Motors that included internships at one of their facilities. The summer before my junior year, I was an intern doing industrial engineering in a facility that produced catalytic converters. I was totally fascinated with the noise, chaos and heat of the manufacturing floor. It was somewhat miraculous that you could take the raw material at one end and get a finished product out of the other.

The following summer, I asked to be a foreman on the assembly line and they gave me second or third shift. Keeping hourly workers – who are such key players in making this product – inspired was a big focus. It’s boring work but if something is off – a welding machine sounds different, a part’s misshapen – they need to jump on it. I was ostensibly supervising them but the truth is, they generously took me under their wing. I learned how to react in emergencies, to know if I needed to bring in a pipefitter, an electrician or a welder if a machine went down. This experience inspired a deeper respect in me for work in all its many forms – and those who do it so well.

Working as a foreman my senior year, I learned that I liked how products were designed and built but not environments with instantaneous pressure. The realization that I preferred more time to think and ponder was an important one – it helped put me on my path to academia.

The adrenaline rush of teaching plus mentors who mattered

I was lucky to get some very hands-on experience within the auto industry for my first job out of college. At Chrysler, I drove cars on the proving ground to see how parts held up to stress and strain, went to mechanic school and did fatigue testing in the lab. At the same time, I was pursuing my master’s degree from the University of Michigan–Dearborn.

After Chrysler, I spent time at a structural engineering firm helping to pioneer the use of the finite elements technique, which helps solve structural analysis problems, on Corvettes for our client, Chevrolet. While I really love cars (especially Corvettes), I didn’t love this billable work. There was no time to experiment, to play around with parameters of our solutions and see what would happen if we changed things.

But George Kurajian, my master’s advisor and a dear mentor, encouraged me to start teaching – and I’d been inspired by the respect and care I experienced with his teaching firsthand. I figured if he saw that potential in me, it might be worth exploring, so I started simultaneously teaching a materials sciences course for adults at night. I just loved the challenge. I asked myself, “How can I understand this set of ideas from multiple perspectives, be creative in describing it and inspire students to learn and own these concepts?” I’d come home from those night classes high on this adrenaline rush from helping them get it.

This experience inspired me to go for my PhD at the University of Michigan. Then my husband and I set our sights on Stanford for our post-PhD jobs, based in part on George’s urging. It wasn’t a hard sell – as a Midwestern girl driving down Palm Drive for the first time, I said, “This is where I want to be.” Then I talked to Drew Nelson and Bernie Roth, both of whom were friends with George, and fell in love with the design group. They proved to be instrumental to my success.

Drew and I had overlapping research areas – and he was so generous in connecting me with key people also doing fatigue and fracture research. A masterful teacher, Drew also taught me excellent techniques to reach students. And Bernie has been a consistent cheerleader, mentor and sponsor in my career, giving me tough love as needed and modeling how to reframe problems into opportunities, live your priorities and be there for people.

In fact, it was because of that influence that I was unapologetic about making my daughter, Portia Elan, a priority. She was born during my second year at Stanford, right before graduation. As car geeks, we thought it was the perfect name: a play on Porsche and another favorite car, the Lotus Elan. As I reflect on career and family, I’m just incredibly pleased that both my husband and I have been able to contribute to work we love and that we kept our girl front and center. I loved having big chunks of time to pal around with her at our place in the Sierras, hiking on boulders on the Stanislaus River on summer afternoons.

Sticking with structural analysis, expanding to research on teaching

My initial research at Stanford was structural analysis around welding – taking two separate parts, putting them together, ensuring the bonding has integrity and minimizing energy consumption so it performs well in automotive crashes.

At that time, the National Science Foundation began to fund education-related projects and research related to enhancing diversity in STEM fields. I was approached by a group of academics from various schools to focus on the scholarship around teaching engineering concepts. There are so many styles and types of learning – it’s really important to help students find and embrace theirs. That’s been a focus of my lab for the past two decades.

As part of this, I developed a mechanical dissection teaching technique, which centers on teaching how a product works by mapping its external functions, taking it apart to see what the internal components do and then putting it all back together. This led to a new course: ME99, Mechanical Dissection.It’s an incredibly fun class – and I have since incorporated elements of that course into other courses. We take bikes, engines, fishing reels, you name it, apart and put them back together.

Students that surprised and meaningful coaching moments

What’s surprised me is seeing how timid some Stanford students were about asking questions. Sometimes when students have been labeled smart their whole lives, they think, I shouldn’t be asking questions, I should already know this, I’ll look stupid.Some students also worry that if they don’t know something, it could reflect negatively on the group or groups they identify with. One of my joys is helping all these students understand that in a learning environment, be it academic or corporate, asking questions is how you make progress.

I love working with freshmen and sophomores who come in and start to learn who they are – not who their families expect them to be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the “OK, your parents or a teacher said you should be an engineer. Do you really want to be?” conversation.

I try to help them think about what gets them excited or makes them worried so I can share some pointers on experiences that can complement what they’re doing – or suggest something different to try. Students need to listen to themselves as they do the hard work of figuring out what makes them happy. They have to ask themselves, Can I see myself doing this? What else do I want to learn?

Life throws a lot of opportunities our way. These are lifelong questions we should continually ask ourselves – and that only we can answer.