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Sheryl Sorby, SEFI Fellow

Prof Sheryl Sorby has actively participated in the development of engineering education and shown true leadership: as a pioneering engineering education researcher, as a consistent, visible and effective advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, as a leader in engineering education, and as a friend and colleague for so many of us in the SEFI community. 

Contributions to engineering education research 

Sheryl has been working for over three decades on one particular goal – to raise spatial ability levels so that young people, particularly those with a deficit in spatial ability, can engage more successfully with STEM learning. Spatial ability is the ability to both create and manipulate in your mind 3-D images such as mentally rotating an object. Those with high levels of spatial ability tend to be much more adept at mentally representing word problems in mathematics which leads to significantly higher success rates in problem solving. At a simpler level, spatial ability is needed to read a map, to follow instructions to assemble flat-pack furniture, or to visualize an object. 

Spatial ability acts as a filter for success in STEM education: the greater your spatial ability, the more likely you are to succeed in your engineering education. Also, surprisingly, females consistently score lower in spatial ability tests than males. But spatial ability can be developed, and when students are taught this skill, their success rates in STEM subjects increase significantly. Despite this evidence, spatial ability receives less attention in the curriculum than the other primary abilities of verbal and mathematical skills. 

Advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion 

The work that Sheryl has done to increase spatial ability in students is a brilliant example of an initiative that helps all students, but its impact on female students is more profound, as they generally start at a lower spatial ability, yet after developing this ability their success rates in engineering courses are higher than male students. For this work, Sheryl has just recently received the ABET Claire L. Felbinger Award for Diversity and Inclusion for her transformative and proactive leadership. The citation notes that she “has been recognised for her leadership in improving retention and inclusion of diverse, minoritized groups not just through the foundational research, but also by creating interventions to enhance spatial skills in engineering students”. 

During her time as ASEE President-Elect and ASEE President, together with the SEFI President, Sheryl successfully championed the development of a joint SEFI-ASEE statement on Equality & Diversity. This joint position paper is now available on both the SEFI and ASEE websites. 

Organisational Leadership in Engineering Education 

For almost twenty years, Sheryl has led by example as she worked to develop and promote engineering education, primarily through her work with ASEE. She has acted as chair of working groups, councils, served on the ASEE Board of Directors in various roles, not least as President in 2020/2021, Executive Committee member, long range planning committee member, engineering deans council, etc. In 2011, she received the Sharon Keillor Award for Women in Engineering Education. In summary, her contributions as an organisational leader have been profound. 

Friend and Colleague 

Sheryl arrived in Dublin in the Autumn of 2013 as a Fulbright scholar. She helped the CREATE EER group to grow significantly. Also, critically, being someone with the ability to think big, she brought National Science Foundation officers to Ireland to meet with their counterparts in the Irish Research Council to discuss the benefits of funding STEM education research in Ireland. Not surprisingly, she was very successful in this, and STEM education research groups across Ireland have directly benefitted as a result of her networking and leadership. 

In recognition of her success in advancing engineering education by her work as a pioneering researcher, through her transformative leadership and interventions to improve diversity and equality in engineering education, and her outstanding record of organisational leadership, Sheryl Sorby received the award of SEFI Fellow from the hands of Mike Murphy, former SEFI President, in the award ceremony on 14 September 2021.

The text is a shortened version of the laudation speech given by Mike Murphy. 

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