zahra sadeghizadeh uc davis mechanical aerospace engineering teaching
Photo: Josh Moy/UC Davis.

Zahra Sadeghizadeh: Connecting to Teach

Mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) assistant professor of teaching Zahra Sadeghizadeh makes a point to be an approachable, patient and inspiring teacher by connecting with her students.

Sadeghizadeh is in her first year at UC Davis and will be teaching multiple mechanical engineering labs, a new course in rocket propulsion, as well as courses in fluid mechanics and orbital mechanics. She will also help the department prepare for ABET review, develop new aerospace engineering courses and re-vamp the existing ones, while making connections with students through classes and student organizations.

“I’m passionate and excited when I show up in class and I want to make sure that I communicate with the students so they feel the same way,” she said.

Sharing Experiences

Sadeghizadeh believes the key to learning deeply and building connections with students is to implement active learning activities in class. To do this, she tries to incorporate short group learning activities to get everyone talking with her and with each other. She also plans to bring real-world problems from industry into the classroom to give her students hands-on experience and motivate them by giving them a taste of what they’re working toward.

“I think cool projects like designing rockets, being inside of a wind tunnel or watching a simulator can give students a better picture about what aerospace engineering looks like,” she said.

She also believes in the power of sharing her own experiences. As a woman engineer and former international student, she thinks she can relate especially well to students facing the same challenges and serve as a role model. She also tries to have an open-door office hour policy so students can stop by to talk whenever they want or need to.

“I’m coming from the Middle East and I always was [one of] one or two female students in my classes during my undergraduate studies. When I came here for my Ph.D., it was the same situation, so I think we need a shift.” she said. “I think for female students, seeing another woman who is working in the area that is their dream and has common experiences could be encouraging and help them to have a sense of community.”

She says the end of a course is always bittersweet, but she takes pride in seeing her students learn and take the next steps toward pursuing their dreams.

“I learn with my students and we all grow together,” she said. “I like these dynamics—you’re getting a better version of yourself as a teacher and at the same time, you see progress in your students. I think that’s the purpose of our job: to have students who are better than us at the end of the day.”

A Passion for Teaching

Sadeghizadeh’s passion for teaching and research inspired her to pursue her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“I think it’s all about enjoying what you are doing every day,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, but you should be excited and you should have a reason and purpose for that day. I think helping people to develop is that job for me.”

She got her first teaching experience as a Ph.D. student, when she taught a 100-person dynamics class that solidified her interest. After graduating, she looked for academic positions where she could balance her research with teaching, which led to her first job at Florida Polytechnic University.

Since the university was new, she and her colleagues played an instrumental role in developing the aerospace engineering curriculum. She developed courses in aerodynamics, propulsion and combustion, taught an experimental methods course and led two year-long mechanical design labs. She also enjoyed doing research on thermal fluid fields for propulsion systems, but realized she wanted to focus more on teaching and pedagogical research, so she applied for the opportunity at UC Davis.

“This job provides me with the opportunity to have that balance,” she said. “I’m very interested in technical research, but I’d like to keep that in the background and do some undergraduate research projects while focusing more on developing new teaching methods for the mechanical and aerospace area.”

She is excited by UC Davis’ many active student clubs, especially those involved with diversity, equity and inclusion. She also hopes to join outreach programs in the college and help introduce mechanical and aerospace engineering to young students, especially girls.

“I think I have experienced firsthand the challenges that the minorities have, so it’s a very great opportunity for me to be able to impact young people and share some of my experience with them,” she said. “Teaching gives me all of those possibilities.”

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