Is it time to incorporate performance training into engineering education?

An Olympic-calibre athlete–and professional engineer–is looking to blend athletics training with engineering education to produce high-performance practitioners.

Sasha Gollish, P.Eng., might be the only professional engineer licensed by PEO who calls herself a “performance” engineer. A 2007 graduate of Western University’s engineering program, and the holder of an economics degree from the University of Toronto, Gollish has some novel ideas about how to train future engineers for all the rigours of a professional career.

Although listed in PEO’s records as a civil engineer, Gollish prefers the performance modifier. She’s not necessarily trying to establish a new engineering discipline, but rather looking for a way to combine lessons learned from track and field and athletics into the education of a new generation of disciplined, performance-driven professional practitioners.

Licensed by PEO in 2010, Gollish has 10 years’ experience in road safety with Anchor Shoring and Caissons Ltd., the Ministry of Transportation and Safe Roads Engineering, a division of the Powell group of companies.

But Gollish was more in the public eye last summer as a competitor in the women’s 1500-metre race at the 2015 Pan Am games. Despite nearly losing a shoe seconds after the starting gun, she persevered to finish third in the race and claim a bronze medal.

On January 13, 2016, she told a group of University of Toronto alumni that winning a medal in that race was one the most important accomplishments in her young life.

In September 2015, Gollish returned to the University of Toronto to begin the doctorate-level Collaborative Program in Engineering Education (EngEd). A multi-sport athlete, Gollish is interested in new ways of teaching mathematics to engineering undergraduates and hopes some of the training, discipline, practice and rehearsal so crucial to high-level athletics can be incorporated into engineering education.

Engineering Dimensions sat down with Gollish in January to discuss her life and work.

Michael Mastromatteo: When did you develop your interest in engineering education?

Sasha Gollish: Brenda McCabe [PhD, P.Eng., associate professor, department of civil engineering, University of Toronto] introduced me to the EngEd program in the fall of 2014. She informed me that the first cohort of engineering education would begin January 2015. I had left my consulting job and was only working part-time when Brenda and I met. I had finished the advanced coaching diploma through the Canadian Sport Institute and was trying to figure out what was next. It seriously felt like little pieces were falling into place.

I would say I have always been interested in education and teaching, and had really been missing teaching since I left the world of ski coaching to pursue my athletic endeavours.

MM: Do you have a specific thesis you need to defend to complete the PhD? What is it?

SG: Yes, as part of my PhD I do have to do a thesis defense. We see this as an evolving project, and while it is currently titled “How to make mathematics education within engineering education better,” we are almost certain that while the title may change, the foundation of the project will remain the same. That is, I will have to defend my project regarding improving education techniques within mathematics for engineers.

MM: You mentioned in your January 13 presentation that you consider yourself a “performance engineer.” Is this a recognized engineering discipline, or something you’re hoping to explore with your PhD study?

SG: We all define ourselves as construction, mechanical, computer, electrical, bridge, etc. engineers. I want to help change individuals’ performances, be that in the classroom for a student, teaching assistant or instructor/professor, or out in the sports arenas. I believe that there are certain aspects one can “engineer” to make students and athletes’ performances better, and I’m going to figure out what the best way is to do that.

MM: The title of your January 13 presentation was “Advancing engineering education with lessons from the track.” I understand you didn’t come up with that title, but could you summarize what some of the track lessons are that you think can advance engineering education?

SG: While I didn’t come up with the title, it is definitely something I employ with my research every day. Actually, I would say my athletic/coaching life is helping me reshape how I approach my every day. For instance, in coaching we talk about creating a yearly training plan, supported by macro-, meso- and micro-cycles. It’s based upon a created mission, vision and set of values. It made sense for me to employ the same thinking to what I’m doing every day and, specifically, with this project. Another coaching philosophy that really has changed how I operate is the notion of creating an “integrated support team” (IST). We all know and understand the strengths of working with a team, so why not apply it to everything we do? I am not afraid to admit that I am not an expert at everything. I have my niches, and I go to the experts in areas that I am not the expert in.

MM: You seem to have a special focus on the teaching of math to engineering students. Is this an area you feel is in need of study and development?

SG: To be honest, I didn’t really think about it until I first sat down with Bryan Karney [PhD, P.Eng., professor, civil engineering, University of Toronto]. When we started talking and I reflected back upon my time as an undergraduate, I saw the divorce between traditional engineering courses and mathematics. And, really, if you think about it, the natural sciences probably fall the way of mathematics. We do not necessarily see the connection of the natural sciences as the foundation to engineering courses. I think education as a whole is going through an evolution. This is just a small piece of the entire puzzle, but one I see that plays an integral role in changing engineering education.

MM: Here is an excerpt from your presentation: “…creative variation [is] where you take something and you make it your own…in education, and in design, where engineers are so powerful, this creative variation stage [is] where we go above and beyond autonomy, autonomous reaction and rote rehearsal.” Why is “creative variation” so important?

SG: This is where the magic happens! This is where engineers separate themselves from others; it’s where we [engineers] blend creativity and design to create new solutions for the future. And not every engineer will get here, but the engineers who minimize the use of gasoline in cars, the ones who design materials that are more easily recyclable or, even better, decompose within a lifetime, create materials that do not strip the world of its natural resources–all these revolutionary, sustainable ideas for the future–those are the few who will change the world, and hopefully for the better.

MM: Do you think engineering educators would do a better job if they think of themselves as coaches and mentors, rather than as teachers?

SG: Coaching went through a revelation, I would say 10 to 15 years ago, where they recognized it was important to blend educational principles into their practices; coaches recognized that it would be easier to teach and explain a skill by employing teaching principles. Now I think it’s time for educators to do the same, to adopt coaching principles in the classroom, to blend engagement and motivation with teaching a skill. After all, we know that with engagement and motivation, this only helps athletes learn a skill. And I believe the same will hold true in the classroom.

MM: Please expand briefly on the following, again from your presentation: “…I think it’s really important to have fun in the classroom [and] be passionate about what you do, to then be passionate about what you’re going to do in life, career-wise. For engineers, it’s about life-long learning. We need to blend rote rehearsal with deliberate practice and playing, to keep on learning.”

SG: One of the things you commit to as an engineer is life-long learning. In many of the provinces and states, an engineer is required to complete continuing education credits through the year to maintain their licence. Regardless, I think when you’re passionate about something that the desire to learn more about it naturally follows.

Back to rote rehearsal for a second. From education we know that students can do something automatically when they have reached a stage of learning−the ability to reproduce something without even really thinking about it. It is a point you get to after a path of lots of practice, specifically, deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a special type of practice where one is deeply cognitively engaged with the task at hand. Rote rehearsal shouldn’t be the end goal. The only way to be creative and innovative as an engineer is to go that one step further, to continue down that path of deliberate practice (i.e. to keep learning), to uncover the next revelation of whatever it is you are designing or researching.

And really, you are not going to want to continue down that path of deliberate practice unless you truly love what you do. That it is something that makes you want to jump out of bed most days and pursue. I think to Steve Jobs or Alan Watts; both of these people challenge us to look more deeply into what we do. Pick something you’re passionate about as a career. After all, whatever it is, if you pursue it with deliberate practice and continuing education, you will become an expert at it and can make a living at it.

MM: What does the future hold for you, both in terms of athletics and in your engineering education career?

SG: I do not have a crystal ball to answer that. I will continue to work hard at both, pushing myself to new limits on the track and ploughing through research and projects. I love what I do. Every day, I’m excited to wake up and see what I can do.