Beyond Intelligence: Professor Chen Leads Charge to Enhance Resilience in Engineering Education 

Professor John Chen stands in front of the Bonderson Project Center. He is pursuing research to help students thrive
Mechanical engineering Professor John Chen is on a quest to understand how feelings and attitudes that aren’t related to thinking or reasoning could be cultivated in engineering students.

Mechanical engineering Professor John Chen discovered a powerful truth about himself as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia – a realization that would years later shape his approach to engineering education.  

His journey through academia revealed to him that success in engineering doesn’t solely hinge on intelligence; it’s also fueled by an inner resilience.  

This early experience with what he would later understand as grit – a concept popularized by author Angela Duckworth as the perseverance and passion for long-term goals – became the bedrock of his educational and teaching philosophy.  

Motivated by his personal connection to grit, Chen embarked on a quest to understand how feelings and attitudes that aren’t related to thinking or reasoning could be cultivated in engineering students.  

“There are factors not related to talent or intelligence but are proven to be powerfully associated with academic success, sometimes in nonintuitive ways,” Chen said. “We want to boost the ‘feeling good’ part of thriving.” 

With a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, he is partnering with Engineering Student Services to strengthen what he calls thriving competencies – skills, behaviors and beliefs that enable thriving – among underserved students in the college.  

“This project aspires to begin transforming the culture of engineering education from one in which students strive solely to succeed academically to one in which they also seek well-being,” he said. 

Cultivating a culture of thriving 

Chen is expanding upon the groundwork established with colleagues from Purdue University and the University of Texas at El Paso during a prior six-year project that wrapped up in 2022. 

The research team gathered survey and transcript data and analyzed them with a range of statistical tools to determine the influence of noncognitive and affective factors – attitudes, motivations and emotions – on academic performance. The study surveyed thousands of students from Cal Poly, Purdue, University of Texas at El Paso and 17 other institutions.  

The research found that noncognitive and affective factors, referred to as NCAs, are strongly linked to differences in student grades, accounting for 26% of the variation. This is more significant than the combined 10% explained by high school GPAs and standardized test scores. Additionally, the study highlights how these NCA factors change as students advance in their engineering education. 

Chen looks to elevate the team’s research with his pilot project, “Beyond Success: Transforming Learning by Building Thriving Competencies,” with the goal of creating a model that can be adopted by universities nationwide.  

“The impetus for our project is, “Can we change these factors?” said Chen, who believes that altering specific elements can cultivate a culture where engineering and computing students not only survive but thrive.  

“Grit worked for me, but it may not be the ‘thing’ for everyone,” he added.  

Crafting light-touch interventions 

Chen will spend the next few months creating light-touch interventions – small changes aimed at, for instance, positively influencing students’ way of thinking, their sense of appreciation and their engineering identity.  

He highlighted a values affirmation exercise as an example, where students rank values like family, faith and friendships in order of personal importance, then write reflections on them. The key to the intervention is the introspective thinking about values, shown to enhance students’ sense of belonging in a community.   

Chen also plans to implement an intervention that shifts the common negative perception of stress, framing it as a potential motivator instead.  

“I would be happy if we could develop three to five interventions around stress, values and engineering identity that prove to be effective,” he said. “They also have to prove to have a lasting impact and not just improve well-being in the short term.”  

Chen is collaborating with mechanical engineering Professor Jim Widmann and Engineering Student Services Assistant Director Katie Jennings, with Jennings playing a pivotal role in supporting the testing phase.  

Jennings, who coordinates the Multicultural Engineering Program aimed at enhancing equity for historically underserved students, will focus the testing of light-touch interventions on first-generation, low-income or underrepresented students to evaluate their effectiveness.  

“We choose to work with this population to ensure that these students are served,” said Chen adding the initiative should only be broadly adopted if it proves beneficial for the underserved.  

He intends to begin testing his interventions in the fall, with ongoing evaluation of outcomes throughout the three-year project to verify the sustainability of positive effects.  

“This could end up having an impact well beyond our college,” Chen said.  

By Emily Slater