Dr. Sarah Jane (SJ) Bork recently joined the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in partnership with CENGR’s Engineering Education Transformation Institute this August 2023. Dr. Bork’s research in engineering education focuses on the mental health of engineering graduate students.
“I feel proud and happy when my students meet their goals, and this exponentially increases when I know I was able to help them get there.” – Dr. SJ Bork
What did you study in college and where did you earn your degrees?
BS – Electrical and Computer Engineering (Physics Minor), Ohio State University
MS – Electrical and Computer Engineering, Ohio State University
MS – Engineering Education Research, University of Michigan
PhD – Engineering Education Research, University of Michigan
What brought you to UGA?
UGA’s College of Engineering is unique, in that the engineering education research arm of the college was established alongside the other schools. My faculty position being situated both the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Engineering Education Transformations Institute was very appealing as it keeps me connected to a core engineering discipline to ground my work while also providing a direct path to put my research into practice. In addition, all my schooling has been at large universities. I really enjoy the size, opportunities, and atmosphere that comes with a bigger school.
What are your research interests and what motivated you to pursue this area of study?
As an engineering graduate student, I recognized the stigma surrounding discussing mental health in academia, despite how impactful these experiences could be. I have studied different factors related to mental health experiences (e.g., social factors, engineering culture, etc.) using a variety of research methods (e.g., regression analysis, photovoice, factor analysis, interview data, etc.). My research vision is to be a champion of mental health, focusing on graduate students and community-based strategies to build and sustain inclusive STEM environments.
I was attracted to this work as I want to be an agent of change. Specifically, I expect my work will lead to systemic change that promotes positive mental health experiences and reduces or mitigates the impact of negative experiences. This in turn will help students obtain their degrees and succeed post-graduation.
What current or new research projects do you currently have happening in your lab?
I am currently working on sharing findings from a photovoice study I conducted to explore engineering graduate students’ mental health experiences. In short, I found that all the participants in my study, regardless of background, academic experiences, or personal experiences, had a range of positive, negative, and mixed mental health experiences, and that the culture engineering largely contributed to negative experiences.
Moving forward, I expect to expand this work, focusing on three areas: 1) develop a tool to examine graduate student’s mental health experiences, 2) expand inclusive learning practices into graduate school curriculum, and 3) partner with graduate student service organizations that directly support diversity, equity, and inclusion to examine better ways to support graduate students.
How long have you been an instructor in engineering and what inspires you to teach or do research in your field?
I have been teaching in engineering since undergrad. My primary motivation with teaching is to help students succeed. I use a scaffolding approach when teaching as it allows me to break down large tasks into smaller, digestible components. This reduces cognitive load and instills confidence in being able to complete the task(s). I also use active listening techniques to discern students’ needs for validation and support from their needs for resources and guidance. This allows me to align my actions with my student’s needs. Finally, I use a data-driven approach to solicit feedback and input in my classes, allowing me to align my teaching practices with students’ expectations and experiences. I feel proud and happy when my students meet their goals, and this exponentially increases when I know I was able to help them get there.
What research accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
I am really proud of my recent photovoice study. This study used a combination of data collection techniques, but primarily focused on images and accompanying captions students submitted. That is, participants were asked to provide images (e.g., find online, take themselves, etc.) that captured their range of mental health experiences as graduate students at a research intensive, historically White institution. These images were then brought to a group discussion where the participants shared their experiences with one another, with the ultimate goal of capturing the collective range of experiences across all participants. Although not all of the findings themselves were positive, every experience discussed by one participant always had at least one other student relating to it, if not more. Students talked to one another with such compassion and care, and that was both amazing and unexpected.
What skills do you think are most important for students to succeed in engineering and what methods do you use to ensure the students you engage with learn the skills they need?
Some of the most important skills I learned that I believe helped me succeed were to learn how and when to ask for help; to find and cultivate a support network; and to treat myself with grace and compassion. Engineering can be a very difficult discipline that places high demands on its students (e.g., time, mental capacity, etc.). I found that it paid dividends to not try and face those demands alone.
As an educator, I use a variety of methods to ensure that those I work with are able to learn the skills they need. I make use of active learning strategies and assessment techniques to pull from a range of students’ interests and increase their sense of belonging in all learning environments. Furthermore, I am proactive in providing students with accommodations and resources that I believe will help them succeed, inside and outside of the classroom (e.g., post lecture notes in advance, using multiple means of engagement, etc.). Finally, I create inclusive spaces by centering my spaces on curiosity, using honest, direct, and non-judgmental communication, and promoting open inquiry.
What excites you the most about engineering?
The possibilities! It feels like with engineering you can solve any problem with enough time and effort. I am very hopeful to someday use a tricorder (Star Trek).
What do you like to do in your pastime / hobbies?
I really enjoy watching tv/movies, loving my dog, listening to music, and trying new places to eat (I always welcome recommendations!).
What is one of your favorite places in Athens?
I really liked the Sandy Creek Nature Center as the trails I went on were shaded and the swimming area was nice and sandy. When it comes to restaurants, Cook Out is quickly becoming a favorite.
What is one of your favorite inventions (so far!) and why?
My favorite invention is the shower (and indoor plumbing). I have found that hot a shower helps with just about anything.
We are more than thrilled to have Dr. SJ Bork join us at UGA. Dr. Bork can be found on the second floor of Driftmier, Office 2107.