Engineering Education Transformations Institute to transition to new leadership

Nicola Sochacka, left, and Joachim Walther, seen leading a discussion with studentsSince its inception in 2016, the University of Georgia’s Engineering Education Transformations Institute (EETI) has established itself as a vibrant incubator for engineering education research and instruction. Now, as EETI’s two founders move on from UGA to pursue their work in Australia, the College of Engineering will seek new leadership to advance the institute’s impact.

“I’m thankful for the vision and leadership Joachim Walther and Nicola Sochacka have provided our college in building EETI from the ground up and the collaborative community they’ve fostered,” said Donald Leo, dean of the College of Engineering. “Although I’m sorry they’re leaving UGA, I wish Jo and Nicki the best. They’ve established a strong foundation for EETI and I’m confident the vital work the institute performs will continue to grow and positively impact our faculty and students.”

The Engineering Education Transformations Institute serves as a hub for a wide range of discussions and initiatives designed to improve engineering education. The institute focuses on bringing together faculty, staff and students as it helps faculty improve instruction, generate innovations in courses and curricula, and conduct empirical research to better understand students’ experiences.

Photo above: Nicola Sochacka, left, and Joachim Walther, seen leading a discussion with students, have led UGA’s Engineering Education Transformations Institute since it’s formation in 2016. 

“What’s really exciting about EETI is that it’s a new model for what engineering education can be,” said Walther, a professor and EETI’s director. “At UGA, the institute has become a true community that cuts across the three schools in the College of Engineering and brings together engineering education research with innovative and passionate practice.”

“We’ve valued our time at UGA and the ability to build something truly unique,” said Sochacka, a research scientist and EETI’s associate director for research initiation and enablement. “We appreciate the support we’ve received from the entire college, particularly Dean Leo, to build the Engineering Education Transformations Institute. We think it’s a one-of-a-kind effort in the country and we’re proud of what the team has accomplished.”

Under Walther and Sochacka’s leadership, EETI launched innovative studies to determine how engineering students can best develop empathic skills to enhance their approach to professional practice. The institute also led a wide-ranging effort to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual learning impacted engineering faculty, staff, and students at UGA. Other studies supported by EETI have focused on the role that academic resilience plays in enhancing student performance in challenging core engineering courses, factors that promote the success of diverse graduate laboratories, and virtual and remote learning environments, among others.

After leaving this summer, Walther and Sochacka plan to extend the work they began at UGA through consultation and training with STEM educators around the globe. Their new ProQual Institute for Research Methods will offers courses, incubators and consulting services in STEM education research methods.

Walther has been a member of the UGA faculty since 2009. In 2016, he was named a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on science and engineering professors in the early stages of their research careers. Walther received an NSF CAREER Award in 2012 for his work to improve the quality of qualitative research in engineering education.

Sochacka joined the UGA faculty in 2010. She has worked closely with faculty and students to design qualitative studies that focus on in-process research ethics and bridging the gap between research and practice. A frequent presenter at national and international conferences, her research has been published in leading journals including the Journal of Engineering Education and Studies in Engineering Education.

“I have been really impressed with everything Jo and Nicki have built at EETI,” said Bjorn Birgisson, chair of the School of Environmental, Civil, Agricultural and Mechanical Engineering. “This is now a world-class operation that promises to take engineering education to the next level.”

The College of Engineering plans to name a new director for the Engineering Education Transformations Institute by fall semester.

By Mike Wooten

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