June 2020

Shawn Jordan: Engineering the future of education

By Matt Schnepf

 

Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Shawn Jordan faithfully watched the adventure series “MacGyver.” Looking back, he says he related to the program’s titular character, a secret agent who solved problems through engineering prowess and a unique ability to create something out of anything.

“I’ve always been kind of a tinkerer,” says the associate professor of engineering in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University. A loyal Boilermaker, Jordan earned three degrees from Purdue: a bachelor’s in computer engineering (2001), a master’s in electrical and computer engineering (2003), and a PhD in engineering education (2010).

From an early age, Jordan would take objects apart, determine how they worked and put them back together. At just 2, he disassembled his father’s record player, leaving it in numerous unconnected pieces. “My parents were quite upset and didn’t know what to do,” he recalls. “So they said, ‘Shawn, please put this back together.’ And I did.”

Equally adept at using his hands to create, Jordan knew attending Purdue would allow him to expand his vast skills and knowledge. “I chose computer engineering and electrical engineering because I loved the process of making things but also loved electronics and programming,” he says. After earning his PhD, he went straight into academia, determined to help engineering students put theory into action through project-based education. 

“Arizona State is an exciting place to be,” Jordan says. “The fully project-based engineering program is multidisciplinary in nature.” Each semester, students complete a course that requires them to design and construct real-world projects using concepts learned in the classroom.

“You put a microcontroller, some sensors and actuators together in a box, often connecting that box to the internet or another smart device someone else has designed,” Jordan notes. “And suddenly you have an amazing prototype that can change the world in some way.” His students have designed everything from smart home devices for accessibility to wearables that monitor vital signs to escape-room puzzles networked over wifi. 

Now, reflecting on his own education, Jordan credits Purdue’s classroom instruction and extracurricular activities with contributing to his own success. “I appreciate the University’s commitment to the arts. I was involved with bands quite extensively, as well the Convocations Volunteer Network. Those two mechanisms helped feed the artistic side of who I was,” he says. Jordan also actively participated in the Rube Goldberg machine content, an opportunity to merge his artistic and engineering talents. 

“As someone who’s both creative and analytical, I want to design the problem and the solution sometimes,” he says. “That’s something I found so exciting about the Goldberg machine contest, and that’s part of what I like about teaching in the project-based programs. I’m empowering students to design their problems as well as their solutions.”

This in turn fuels Jordan’s desire to make an impact through research, including his goal to redesign engineering instruction. “I am interested in continuing to promote and progress project-based engineering education, particularly to figure out ways to make it more culturally relevant.”

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