Educator Spotlight:
Mark Sivak

Mark Sivak
Associate Teaching Professor
Art + Design; Sherman Center for Engineering Entrepreneurship Education
College of Arts, Media and Design; College of Engineering


Can you describe your role at Northeastern?
I am an associate teaching professor. I’m jointly appointed in the College of Arts, Media and Design in Art + Design, and in the College of Engineering in the Sherman Center for Engineering Entrepreneurship Education.

Can you talk about your courses?
Primarily I teach in Art + Design, specifically the Experience Design program. In the College of Engineering, I teach part of the Entrepreneurial Engineering minor. Within those, I teach in experience design. I teach classes like Programming Basics and Physical Computing, which are more technical courses. I also have taught the capstone in design in the past. I’m teaching that again this year. When I’ve done Dialogue of Civilizations, I teach Design Process, Context and Systems, and Experience Design One, which are two other experience design courses. 

On the engineering side, I primarily teach Iterative Product Prototyping. We have a challenge project based with the student group, Generate, over there, which is a sister group to Scout and Idea on campus here.

What are Scout, Idea, and Generate?
Scout is in the College of Arts, Media and Design. It’s a student-led design firm. They have graphic designers and design students, and every semester they take on clients. They do client work for primarily Idea ventures — internal projects. Generate is similar in that it’s more on the product design side, but it’s like a product design studio. Idea is where the venture creation happens, and then Scout and Generate assist with particulars like brand identity and web design. In Generate they have done apps for software companies and software ventures, and they’ve done physical prototypes as well for actual products.

What was your experience at the CATLR Teaching Fundamentals intensive?
I was part of the Teaching Inquiry Fellows program, and now I’m a Teaching and Learning Scholar. I’m interested in how I can bridge all of my classes together around the idea of an iterative design process. The intensive in 2017 was really great for that because it was a shifting of scales. We looked at a syllabus, and then we got really specific over a couple of days, from your syllabus down to specific teaching outcomes, down to a single lecture, to a single day, and kind of zoomed in and out in a way that I thought was helpful. I left wishing I could spend that kind of time with all of my classes.

What is it like being a Teaching Inquiry Fellow and then a Teaching and Learning Scholar?
I’ve always been interested in how people learn, and the Teaching Inquiry Fellows was a great way for me to dip my toes into the inquiry side of teaching and learning. It allowed me to explore what people are doing out there, and also develop my questions. I’ve met some other great faculty as part of it and got to interact with the other people here at CATLR.                    

It was an excellent experience putting a rigor and a method to what I was interested in. Then as part of the Teaching and Learning Scholars I get to try and answer some of those research questions and look at what kind of evidence I can collect, and explore opportunities to publish the results.

What topics are you looking into?
I’m interested in looking at design process. What I’m exploring right now is how can I link students’ knowledge of a design process and how to tie that to an iterative learning process so they can raise their metacognition, their awareness of how they actually learn, in order to improve their learning. A lot of students don’t take time to actually figure out how they learn best and what best practices work for them. A lot of them stick to the myth of “I’m a visual or an audio learner,” which is not really a thing, as people here at CATLR will tell you. So what I’m interested in is: can I, through reinforcing the idea of having a rigorous iterative design process, teach students about their own rigorous iterative learning process and get them to improve?

Is there anything you’ve learned that might help others to encourage deeper learning in their students?
Some of my original literature review was in the areas of metacognition and self-explanation, which are two areas of SoTL, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. There are promising studies out there that show that if you can raise metacognition in your students, this is where mindfulness can come in. There are easy ways to do that, like with reflections, where they reflect on not just what they learned but how they learned it, and that makes them better learners over time.

With self-explanation, people are looking at how you can take your prior knowledge and then explain it to yourself in the context of what you already know. So actually talking to yourself or reading out loud can be an effective method of learning, which I think is interesting and broadly applicable to a lot of cases. 

What does it mean to you to be both an educator and a learner, especially being a triple Husky?
So my first two degrees are in mechanical engineering, in 2007 and 2009. My Ph.D. is in interdisciplinary engineering, which I got in 2012. One of the really great things about being a triple Husky is that I really have been in the shoes of the students. I know what it’s like to go on co-op. I know what it’s like to work with the different departments. I’m very sympathetic towards students because I’ve been there. As both a learner and an educator, some of the best ways that you can learn, like self-explanation, is by teaching.

One of the other things that I really try to convey to my students is the idea of experiential learning. I bring in class structures that I know worked well for my own metacognition, like flipping classrooms, more in-class activities, and doing more client-based activities where we’re bringing somebody from the outside to either be a critic or to be the voice of the client in a project. 

Our students change massively when they go on co-op. They all do different co-op jobs, so some people get different skills on co-op. I try to think, “How can you leverage that prior knowledge into your current knowledge?” That’s where metacognition and self-explanation can be really helpful because it allows students to personalize their learning.