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Beth Rieken

MS ’12, PhD Candidate, Mechanical Engineering
I was one of very few women in my lab as I was working on my engineering PhD. As I learned to navigate the graduate school environment, my interests grew beyond my initial focus on thermoscience, and I ended up finding a good fit in the Designing Education Lab.

 I was curious about the experience of being a woman in engineering and how we can broaden engineering culture to include a wider spectrum of students.

Mindfulness and yoga are a big part of my life. The ability for me to shift my perspective from what other people were telling me my value is to what it actually is allows me to persist in a male-dominated culture. And because of that I began to do a lot of reading on mindfulness research. Many of the benefits seen are improved empathy, compassion and creativity – all things an engineer should have. I asked myself, “How can this translate into engineering education?” I began to pursue this line of research, which is one of the first efforts to combine mindfulness and engineering.

I have two studies. One is a laboratory study, where I do a meditation intervention with engineering undergrads. I’m still collecting data, but it’s building on previous work by others. Studies have shown that meditation promotes creative or divergent thinking, which is exactly what you need when you’re brainstorming and ideating during the initial stages of an engineering design process. In my study, after a meditation session with students, I give them a design problem. They must list all the factors you would consider in designing a retaining wall for the Mississippi River. The theory behind this suggests that if students are in this divergent or more creative thinking process, they’re going to consider broader variables beyond just the technical specifications. For example, they’ll consider environment, housing and the community around where this wall is being built. And they’ll even consider whether or not the wall is the best solution to this problem in the first place. It’s a very specific application, but it could have really profound results.

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