Carnegie Mellon University
October 28, 2014

Plotting a Course for the Future: Professor Susan Finger Completes NSF Service

Plotting a Course for the Future: Professor Susan Finger Completes NSF Service

When Professor Susan Finger was named a Program Director for the National Science Foundation (NSF), she was given a unique opportunity to influence engineering education on a national scale. Working in the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE), she relied on her 30+ years of teaching experience to make recommendations about which proposals would best use the three million dollars the NSF distributes each year to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education.

Susan was selected through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act to serve as one of the foundation's rotators, who make up roughly half of its scientific staff. Through its rotator system, the NSF calls upon the expertise of professionals across the STEM disciplines to guide its decision-making. "The idea is you keep bringing in new people and you keep the ideas fresh," she explains. "You have new people in with new ways of looking at things. It keeps the ideas lively."

One of the things she enjoyed the most working at the DUE was the opportunity to collaborate with this diverse group of educators, who were selected from the STEM disciplines for their excellence in education to promote progress through education research. Susan and her fellow rotators each lent their unique perspectives about what constitutes effective teaching methods. "It's a very collegial atmosphere," she remembers. "You can talk to someone who's an expert in biology education and someone who's interested in math education while you're talking to someone who works in engineering education. So you get really interesting conversations."

In addition to this interdisciplinary collaboration, her work put her in direct communication with engineering faculty in the earliest stages of the research process. Susan says she enjoyed this exclusive glimpse into burgeoning research. "It's the same thing that's fun about graduate students," she reflects. "You talk to them about what their educational goals are, and you ask them, is what you're doing based on what we know about how people learn? And when you do it in your classroom, how are you going to know what your students are learning?"

In her four years at the NSF, Susan worked on over 250 education projects, although she reviewed hundreds more. "There are between 8-10 proposals for every one that gets funded," she explains. "Over four years, I had something to do with each one of them."

Throughout that time, she remained dedicated to her own work as an educator. She was awarded an Independent Research Grant that allowed her to make the round-trip from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh nearly every weekend, in order to meet with her graduate students. Now back at CMU, she says she's looking forward to engaging with the newest crop of engineering students. "When I was ready to come back I told my colleagues at NSF that I missed teaching. But then once when I got back I realized that what I really missed was interacting with students."

Pictured above (left to right): Janis Terpenny, Susan Finger, and Mary Lee Ledbetter

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