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Cornell Engineering


In June, Rebecca Macdonald was named the first Swanson Director of Engineering Student Project Teams. The position was made possible by a generous endowment from John A. Swanson '61, M.Eng. '63. Macdonald is responsible for leading the project teams program that provides opportunities for more than 750 students across all engineering and related disciplines to participate in hands-on, interdisciplinary design, development, and construction. Students utilize their technical knowledge, creativity, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills to engage in national and international competitions and service projects. Macdonald works closely with an advisory group of faculty to determine strategic direction and provide much needed management support to the teams. She is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and has completed two master’s degrees—in civil engineering and economics. Macdonald was previously an engineer designing high voltage transmission lines by computer optimization and a senior pricing and structuring analyst for Dominion Power in Richmond, Va. Most recently she was a professor in the Department of Construction Management at East Carolina University. The University of Alabama awarded her Ph.D. in civil engineering with an emphasis on construction management in early August. 

Cornell Engineering Magazine: What would you like the Cornell Engineering community to know about you?

rebecca1Rebecca Macdonald: I come from a multi-disciplinary engineering family. My mother is an electrical engineer, one brother is a mechanical engineer, and another is a chemical engineer. So the idea of having project teams at Cornell that incorporate all the different disciplines is really intriguing. Some of the team meetings are probably a lot like some of my family dinner discussions.

CEM: Were you ever on a project team?

RM: When I did my undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech, I co-oped a job and I participated in study abroad. I found both experiences really rewarding. They helped me identify what areas of civil engineering I wanted to pursue. They also broadened my horizons and gave me a new perspective that only comes with travel. Unfortunately, though I knew about the concrete canoe and steel bridge teams when I was an undergraduate, I did not participate. During my graduate studies I did help out with some of the different project teams, though more on a mentoring or advisory level. I was excited by the work of the Engineers Without Borders group and I travelled with them to two international locations. I also assisted with the national concrete canoe competition hosted at Alabama. I saw first-hand the interest, the commitment, and the self-motivation of the students. It’s a different type of student that gravitates to these types of projects.

CEM: How do you describe your job?

RM: I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store. I love the idea of lifelong learning. And here at Cornell Engineering I get to engage with top-caliber students and, ideally, learn some of what they are learning. I also have a hand in strengthening the students’ communication skills through their dissemination to me. Every day I get to see something come to fruition, whether it’s a pen and ink design, a team meeting that leads to consensus and a decision, or even the actual finished project. We have 19 teams that travel coast to coast as well as internationally, so I get to satisfy that wanderlust I have. I plan to attend as many of the project team competitions as I can over the course of the year.

It’s a challenging job in the sense that I don’t know how any particular day will unfold. One morning I came in and there was a six-foot wide puddle of standing water on my floor. That morning, I was a cleaner. But seriously, I work directly with students every day. I get to interact with faculty from all of the engineering departments, which is a blast. I am involved in administrative issues. I get to keep my hands in the research world and satisfy my intellectual curiosity. I came here knowing I wouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue the research track that I established with my doctorate, but with the notion that I would be able to research new ideas in engineering education and the role of project teams.

CEM: Why did you want the job?

RM: It matches what my interests really are. My job combines what I enjoy about academia—which is being on a campus, engaging with students, and trying to help them reach their potential or figure out what they want to do—with what I loved about my work experience. My job with Dominion Power in Virginia was challenging and I experienced various aspects of the electric utility field. My job here as the Swanson Director of Engineering Student Project Teams pulls together the various threads of my background. I get to be a researcher, an administrator, a teacher, a mentor, and a student. I believe this is a unique position at a university.  When I saw the opening advertised and read the description, it resonated. What I have enjoyed most about the job is advising and engaging with the students. I get to work with students at one of the top engineering programs in the country.

CEM: Has it been what you expected?

RM: It’s been everything I expected, and more. I could not ask for a more supportive environment. From Matt Ulinski, who spearheaded this for so long, (and is still carrying a good amount of weight and helping in my transition), to the administration, which is fantastic, to all the support services, who have been great. That’s another wonderful part of this job. I’m not just in a department in a singular role. I interact routinely with marketing, communications, alumni affairs, corporate relations, student services, and advising. It’s awesome. And from everything I have seen so far, this welcome and support extend to Cornell as a whole. The wellness program is great. I try to see speakers from outside engineering and there are some really great ones. I’ve met a lot of people that way.  Only one thing has been truly hard so far: I thought I would be totally willing to trade an Alabama August for a northern winter, but this winter has made me rethink that a bit.

CEM: Besides cleaning up puddles, what do you do?

I met with a student for half an hour yesterday because he needed a letter of recommendation and he’s requesting it from me. I try to get students access to various things they need. Whether it’s the Emerson Shop or a balcony in one of the dorms so they can do some wireless frequency testing. I have submittal of a paper due today about the engineering education part of my job. I have lots and lots of meetings with lots of different people. I’m trying to identify space utilization and needs. That’s kind of critical right now with the Upson renovation. The Experiential Learning Lab is the prize gem. The space that exists in the Learning Lab for student project teams is great. While happy to have it, it does not fit all of our teams.  Many teams are sharing space or given a small space within a research lab. So one of my priorities is finding more space for these teams to do the good work they do.

CEM: A lot of teams have corporate sponsors. Are you involved in those relationships?

RM: I try to assist however I can. I think one of the beauties of the program is that the teams really are autonomous. They create a budget and we fund them for operations expenses so they can at least perform at a basic level. Of course, Cornell students want to achieve and push beyond the basic level to go bigger than what is necessarily required. In order to do that they have to find their own funds and further assist themselves with costs. Some teams seem to have a more direct path with certain companies and corporations and routinely get the funding they need. They’re creative, in that if they find a novel product they reach out and are very good at getting in-kind gifts. It was brought to my attention by corporate relations that Alumni Affairs and Development was going to do an in-house kind of crowd funding. I was able to get three of the available slots for our teams and we raised over $65k between the three teams. This allowed one team to travel to Honduras cost free for the students, so money would not be a deciding factor in who could go. Baja-SAE raised money so they could compete in all three races and compete for the Iron Team award. CUAUV raised money to try to buy some advanced equipment for their sub.