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B³ - Women in Focus

Dr. Julie Direnga and Dr. Evelina Dineva
Love for Hard Science, Passion for Student Learning

European Commission data for 2021 is quite clear: women at the highest levels of academia remain still under-represented, holding only around one-third (33%) of research and about one-quarter of full professorship positions (26%). Women are also less likely to be employed as scientists and engineers (41%) and as self-employed professionals in science and engineering and ICT occupations (25%). Sadly, it is simply a fact that women in Europe are still under-represented in research and innovation.

Aware of this discrepancy, the “Bildung Beyond Boundaries” Framework´s commitment to innovation in higher education acknowledges the contribution of the bright women scientists working in its projects, while recognizing the need to raise our own standards concerning gender representation.

Through this platform, however, we want to highlight the importance of women´s voices in our innovation-driven projects. With these ideas in mind, we introduce Dr. Julie Direnga and Dr. Evelina Dineva, whose work meets at the intersection of a passion for student learning, cognitive science, engineering, and physics. We invite you to get to know them a bit better.

Photo: Tomas Vallejo Zanguen

“Bringing a greater diversity into the pool of physics problems that aim at activating metacognitive thinking processes in students is very important for me“

Julie Direnga

Is Julie Direnga an engineer or a cognitive scientist at heart? Decide for yourself. Her background is as transdisciplinary as her interests are: she studied General Engineering Science and Mechatronics at Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH), but during her PhD in Engineering Education Research (at the same institution) she assessed the effectiveness of research-based active learning materials in introductory mechanics courses. As a post-doctoral fellow on the Bildung Beyond Boundaries (B3) project “Developmental Adaptive Learning Support for Physics Students (DeALS-Phys)”, she worked on adaptation of homework problems seeking to activate metacognitive thinking processes in students; designed a group assignment algorithm that allowed for adapted homework assignments in Moodle and engaged in student measurement data analysis. On the side, she designed and implemented a chatbot workflow that would provide hints for students on their physics homework.

Through her work with the DeALS-Phys research team, Julie Direnga concluded that - while only weak effects of the intervention on student learning were detected - there are potentially very good early-warning indicators for students that are at risk of dropping or failing courses. She argues that, while we can identify these rather well, we know very little about their motivations and hence how to help. Her view is that a fruitful focus in physics education research at Jacobs University in the future would be on trying to learn more about these students and identifying effective interventions aimed at helping them succeed.

Dr. Direnga is leaving Jacobs at the end of the year 2021. She considers that “the B3 project was a valuable experience for me to grow on. I learned a lot in various areas, be it physics, psychology, or statistics, but also about myself. It was great to see that Jacobs has such a highly engaged teaching staff who is willing to learn from each other and grow together…Who knows? Maybe I will return one day!“

Photo: Tomas Vallejo Zanguen

“The (hidden) powers and beauty of Mathematics sparked my interest in education. Being a mathematician, I felt strong and able to see opportunities and drive change. This feeling of agency inspired my urge to share mathematics wide and broad.“

Evelina Dineva

Evelina Dineva´s guiding thread is to engage in constant cross-disciplinary dialogue. Look no further: She began her academic formation as a mathematician, obtaining her Diploma from the University of Hamburg, switching later to Neuroscience and achieving a PhD from the International Graduate School Neuroscience (IGSN) in Ruhr-University-Bochum. In 2019, her passion for education brought her back to school, enrolling in a Higher Education Master´s Degree from the “Hamburger Zentrum für Universitäres Lehren und Lernen“.

Dr. Dineva worked as a post-doctoral fellow for the B3 project “Hands-On 4.0”, with the task of supporting the (re)-design of courses in line with the recently founded Robotics and Intelligent Systems (RIS) Program that opened in September 2020. Her work contributed to generate evidence-based educational research with a focus on student development in RIS „Intended Learning Outcomes“, as well as, building student´s future skills. To that end, the “Hands-On 4.0” Project team introduced collaborative methods like teamwork, documentation, and peer review for the course „Robotics and Intelligent Systems Project“. One aspect of the work that she particularly appreciated was to conduct interviews with students, analyzing how these methods worked for them. Students not only found these activities helpful in acquiring future skills, but researchers also noted that most students do not even realize that developing future skills is also a part of their study programs. Evelina Dineva argues, “Looking forward, we need to provide much more transparency about intended learning outcomes early in each course, and utilize them to make students experience their progress as they grow“.

Dr. Dineva is also leaving Jacobs University in December 2021, reuniting with her family in the United States. Concerning her work with the “Hands-On 4.0” Team, she concludes: “My experiences, motivations, and beliefs came to fruition in this project. These hands-on experiences are a driving force for learning. Thus, I was particularly excited to see that my project responded to students' requests for playing and working with robots more and earlier during their bachelor studies“.

Thank you Julie and Evelina for all the hard work and expertise that you brought to the B3 Framework. We wish you great success in your future academic -and transdisciplinary- endeavors!

Written by Jessica Price.


Photo: Tomas Vallejo Zanguen