Developing students’ sense of belonging in engineering is at the heart of Molly McVey’s teaching philosophy

March 06, 2024

By Suraaj Aulakh

Sustainable energy engineering (SEE) lecturer Molly McVey has received a 2023 Early Career Award for Excellence in Teaching. Since joining SFU in 2021, McVey brings her expertise in evidence-based and student-centered teaching to the classroom and empowers students to succeed.

“I feel really honoured and grateful to receive this award,” she says. “At this stage of my career, this award solidifies my confidence in my approach, and encourages me to continue looking for ways to engage students in the content as well as in the culture of the classroom.”

McVey’s approach to teaching is driven by her dedication to making sure no student is left behind.

“I feel so strongly about this,” she says. “A degree in engineering can open so many doors—it has for me and it changed my life. It can take a lot to get through the door to engineering school, so when a student enters the program and is ready to put in the hard work, then it is our job to do everything we can to create an environment where they can succeed.”

Before joining SFU’s SEE program, McVey was a postdoctoral teaching fellow at University of Kansas, establishing herself as an expert in engineering education and publishing a dozen papers on the topic. McVey was part of a multi-university project investigating how embedded experts in a program could help shift teaching practices to evidence-based approaches. She worked with professors in multiple engineering disciplines to transform courses and analyze the impact of active learning, cooperative learning, and team-based learning on overall student performance and retention. She also examined trends of first-generation students and students from under-represented minority groups who left engineering programs despite having good academic standing.

“This was really powerful data and it helped motivate conversations on how we could implement changes even at the course level to promote retention of diverse student groups.”

When McVey came to SFU and took on a lecturer position in SEE, she had the opportunity to put her expertise to the test. As she incorporated evidence-based strategies in her classes—such as active and cooperative learning, transparency, structure, and authentic real-world engineering projects—she also embedded stories from her personal journey of developing her own engineering identity.

“I dropped out of engineering once,” she says. “I almost dropped out a second time. I didn’t fit the mold of a typical engineering student so I didn’t feel like I belonged. I understand how important the belonging piece is.”

“I was fortunate to have parents who kept me motivated, but not all students have a support system to help them overcome setbacks like a low exam score. It’s really important that we have that community of support in the classroom and in SEE.”

McVey’s personal experience resonates with many of her students, who may not fit the traditional stereotype of an engineering student and could be struggling with their sense of belonging in the field.

“Molly shows care for her students and it [is] especially important to see a woman in this field who has the same mindset and struggles that we do,” shares one student in a course experience survey. “She understands and empathizes with us, making approaching her for help or extensions very easy.”

“Dr. McVey is an exceptional professor and a natural teacher,” notes another student. “Every professor’s goal is for us to learn and not fall behind but Dr. McVey is the first professor I’ve had who actively ensured this.”

After just a few years of teaching at SFU, McVey’s dedication to teaching has not only gained appreciation from her students, but also her faculty peers.

“Molly is an exceptional educator, and it would be fair to state that she is one of the star teachers in our school,” writes a faculty member who supported her award nomination. “I have found her to be extremely dedicated to the craft of teaching; she goes out of her way to ensure that students have the best learning experience.”

McVey continues to conduct her teaching inquiry at SFU, recently receiving a Teaching and Learning Development Grant to study the impact of her SEE 475 course on developing engineering identity and a sense of belonging. She plans to present the results at the Canadian Engineering Education Association conference this summer.

Reflecting on the award and the next chapter of her teaching career, McVey credits the SEE community for creating an environment that fosters innovative teaching and learning.

“I feel that SEE is such a thoughtful and supportive place, and it is just a joy for my teaching style to be accepted here,” she says.

“I truly feel like I fit here, and I am really grateful for that.”