Engineering the Future of Learning: A Conversation with Carla Zoltowski, CS&E Undergrad Teaching Awardee

IEEE Computer Society Team
Published 09/13/2023
Share this on:

Carla Zoltowski’s journey showcases how determination and passion can leave a major impact within the world of engineering education. Guided by her own personal inspirations, this impact was made possible by her expertise within assistive technology and experiential learning. Her roots in academia are deeply engrained within Purdue University, where she earned her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. Additionally, she became such a guiding force in empowering students’ educational pursuits as an assosiate professor in the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and the School of Engineering Education (by courtesy) within the university. Her role as the inaugural director of the College of Engineering’s VIP Program exemplifies her pioneering leadership, as she increased program enrollment by 210% within only three years.

As a result of her various accomplishments, she has received the 2023 Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science and Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award for “…leadership in developing applied multi-disciplinary team-learning opportunities for engineering students and for promoting professional development education, engineering ethics education and inclusive teaching and mentoring.

In this interview, Dr. Zoltowski sheds light on her journey; sharing how her experiences and insights have led her to shaping the scope of today’s engineering education while inspiring tomorrow’s future leaders.


You have played a significant role in mentoring student design and research teams in programs like EPICS and VIP. Can you share some memorable experiences or success stories from working with these teams?

Having the opportunity to work with so many students, especially over multiple semesters, has been incredible, and I continually hear about the positive impact these experiences have had on the students. However, one story that stands out is the development of a communication device with Professor Oliver Wendt and with an EPICS team that I was mentoring. Originally, the students were pursuing a hardware solution, but when the iPad was introduced, the team decided to pivot to developing an app instead. It was a difficult decision for the students, but we were able to develop a simple version of the app and deploy it to the Apple store. This initial work laid the groundwork for the commercial development of a professional version of the SPEAKall! app by Professor Wendt and colleagues. It was incredible to see the app being used by real users throughout the development. Another memorable part of this experience was the confidence it inspired in the students who worked on it, and how it changed their academic trajectory.

Honor your colleagues achievements. Nominate Someone for a Major Award Today!


Your engineering ethics research has provided insights on ethical issues experienced by practicing engineers, student design teams, and undergraduate students. What are some of the most common ethical challenges that you have identified in these contexts, and how do you think they can be addressed?

A consistent theme from my engineering ethics research is how ethical issues are embedded in the everyday decisions made by engineers. Too often, ethical issues discussed in engineering education are framed as disasters or are cases where there is explicit wrong-doing. Certainly, it is important to be aware of these situations, but it is also very important for engineers to gain awareness of the ethical issues they may encounter as they manage the trade-offs and mitigate the risks throughout design and research projects, and to develop an integrated socio-technical perspective of their role in addressing them. For example, if it isn’t possible to make something 100% safe, what is safe enough? Who has a voice in determining this? And are the risks distributed fairly? It is also important to recognize the impact of the culture of the organization on how members perceive ethical issues and respond to them.

As the inaugural director of the College of Engineering’s (CoE) VIP Program, you managed to increase program enrollment by 210% in the past three years. Congratulations! What strategies did you employ to achieve such impressive growth?

Purdue is the birthplace of so much academic innovation, which includes the EPICS and VIP programs. I received excellent mentorship from Leah Jamieson and Bill Oakes during my time in EPICS, and I was able to bring many of the lessons learned from my work in EPICS to the VIP program. One of my key strategies was to build a flexible and effective course structure that could support a variety of projects and enable everyone’s success—faculty and graduate student mentors and students. This included developing assessment tools and strategies, creating new courses, and developing inclusive pathways such as the Learning Community. I had excellent support from the VIP leadership team at Purdue, Jan Allebach and Yung-Hsiang Lu, and Ed Coyle at Georgia Tech. We had a large number of faculty who saw the benefits of engaging undergraduates in their research through VIP program, and, of course, a large number of students who were eager to participate in the program.


In your research, you have focused on making engineering education, particularly Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), more diverse and inclusive. Could you elaborate on some of the strategies you propose or have implemented to achieve this goal?

My NSF-funded research project really brought together key ideas to this work: taking a design approach and involving diverse stakeholders from ECE which included students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Together, we identified issues that were important for our community to address, developed prototypes, and designed the implementation of these strategies with a focus on how to incorporate inclusive practices into our everyday work at the university. For example, we developed training for graduate teaching assistants and a tip sheet for faculty. Both are intended to communicate to those audiences that what you do makes a difference—and we share stories from students on some of the positive and negative impacts we learned from our research. We help instructors think about how they can easily incorporate the three factors identified by Dr. Becky Packard that are crucial to persistence of students: 1) interest: that course content is interesting and important to the world and their own future; 2) capacity: having resources and confidence to be successful; and 3) belongingness: that they belong in the engineering community. It is also important to be aware of practices and policies that do not support the success of all students, with a particular impact on those who have been historically underrepresented in engineering. For example, course-based research programs like VIP facilitate broader participation, especially of those who can benefit most from such programs.

Throughout your career, you have made major milestones, all while creating an impact within engineering education. Were there any challenges that you faced along the way? If so, how did you navigate through them, and how did overcoming them lead you to where you are today?

I have been very interested in engineering education throughout my academic career. Originally, I had planned to obtain a Ph.D. in ECE related to automated speech recognition. However, I had triplets before I finished, and when one of the triplets was diagnosed with autism at two years old, my career was put on hold for several years. Shortly after I returned to ECE to teach, I began mentoring EPICS projects with a passion for working on assistive technology. I then joined the EPICS staff, and when they started the Ph.D. program in Engineering Education, I jumped at the opportunity to pursue this program as it aligned so strongly with my interests. Although it was a challenge to complete a Ph.D. while working full-time, I learned so much as my work and my studies informed each other. My work in EPICS and my research fueled my passion for experiential learning, and I was so excited to be able to go “home” to ECE to develop those opportunities there.

As someone with a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D., all from Purdue, how has your academic journey at the university shaped your approach to teaching and mentoring students?

Having been part of the Purdue community for a very long time, it has helped me to develop a strong network across campus. I have also had the opportunity to work with colleagues in different disciplines and have learned the benefits of bringing in diverse perspectives. Thus, much of my mentoring of students is helping them to identify underlying needs or issues through different perspectives, and then helping them to connect resources. I try to ask questions to help them identify potential issues in their approaches so they can learn and make meaningful progress.

As a leader and educator, what advice would you give to aspiring computing and engineering students who want to pursue a career in Electrical and Computer Engineering? How can they best prepare themselves for success in the field?

I know I am biased, but I would recommend that aspiring students participate in experiential learning opportunities like VIP or EPICS, co-op and internship. I think it is important for engineers to develop a broad set of professional skills in addition to the technical skills, and to develop an integrated socio-technical understanding of the work we do as engineers. There are many paths to achieving your goals, and sometimes it is just as important to learn what you don’t want to do in your career as well as to learn what you do. It is also important to learn how to become contributors in the field and producers of new knowledge and not just consumers, and experiential learning opportunities are great ways to practice those skills as well.

More About Carla B. Zoltowski

Carla B. Zoltowski is an assistant professor of engineering practice in the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and (by courtesy) the School of Engineering Education, and Director of the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program within the College of Engineering at Purdue. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education, all from Purdue.

Dr. Zoltowski played a leadership role in establishing Purdue ECE’s VIP program as a College-wide program. As the inaugural director of the CoE’s VIP Program, Zoltowski has developed and expanded the program enrollment by 210% in the past three years. She also established the VIP learning communities for the Fall 2019 – Spring 2020 academic year which facilitated the participation of first-year students in VIP and continues to serve as a learning community instructor. Prior to her joining ECE, Zoltowski was Co-Director of EPICS, where she was responsible for teaching design, developing design curriculum and assessment tools for the EPICS program, and conducting workshops for faculty and teachers. She has mentored hundreds of student design and research teams in EPICS and VIP, high-impact programs which provide extended and authentic team-based research and design project experiences which allow for the integrated development of both technical and professional knowledge and skills, as well as the development of an awareness of the cultural, social, and ethical context in which they are practicing. She has led the expansion of the professional development curriculum in VIP which supports student participation and success on their project, teams, and/or careers.

Dr. Zoltowski’s engineering education research impacts undergraduate education more broadly through her focus on the professional formation of engineers and how to make engineering, and specifically Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), more diverse and inclusive. Her engineering ethics research has provided insights on the ethical issues experienced by practicing engineers, student design teams, and undergraduate students and how they are impacted by their role and industry sector or program.