A modern mentor

Chancellor Cheryl B. Schrader (atop Centennial Hall) intends to take Missouri S&T to new heights.
(Photo by B.A. Rupert)

Cheryl B. Schrader believes in the power of storytelling. And not just because she loves a good tale. Over the past 10 years, Schrader, an electrical engineer specializing in systems and control, has become more interested in the different learning styles of students. Her research in this area has focused on how women and minorities learn, and she has found that a good story can help these students become more confident in their own abilities. That greater self-confidence in turn could motivate more of them to graduate and move on to successful lives beyond college.

These days, Schrader is especially interested in sharing the untold stories of women and minorities who have become successful in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Everybody knows the story of Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone,” Schrader says. But similar stories about women inventors are less familiar. “In some academic circles, the impact of women in technological development is becoming clearer,” she says. Beyond the walls of academia, however, “those stories aren’t well-known. They’re not woven into the fabric of our culture.”

RESEARCH INTERESTS • Increasing interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education • Creating and assessing innovative learning methods to help students of all ages succeed in the STEM areas • Exploring the power of storytelling “to bring the contributions of women and underrepresented groups in engineering and science to light”

Schrader hopes to “bring the contributions of women in engineering and science to light, and to have those contributions become a part of the common knowledge of history.” Ultimately, she would like to create an inspiring first-person monologue theatrical performance that could be presented at colleges and universities across the country.

Schrader’s own story, from her days as an undergraduate student, might fit well into that monologue.

EDUCATION: • Bachelor of science, electrical engineering, Valparaiso University (1984) • Master of science, electrical engineering, University of Notre Dame (1987) • Ph.D., electrical engineering, emphasis area: systems and control, University of Notre Dame (1991)

Act 1, Scene 1

Video: Chancellor Cheryl B. Schrader is nationally recognized as a leader in the electrical engineering profession and as a mentor to women in engineering.

It begins one day during her junior year at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Schrader had just finished an exam. Leaving the classroom, she and a classmate discussed the test. “Our answers didn’t agree,” she recalls, and their conflicting perspectives concerned her.

“I was not confident in my answers,” she says, “so I assumed I had failed the exam.”

ACADEMIC CAREER: • Rice University: – assistant professor (1991) • University of Texas at San Antonio: – assistant professor of electrical engineering (1991-96) – associate professor of electrical engineering (1996-2002) – professor of electrical and computer engineering (2002-03) – associate dean for graduate studies and research, College of Sciences and College of Engineering (2000-03) • Boise State University: – dean, College of Engineering (2003-11) – associate vice president for strategic research initiatives (2011-12) • Missouri S&T: – chancellor (2012-present)

Many college students can relate to that sickening sensation — that knot in the gut that foreshadows impending failure. But the sensation overwhelmed Schrader.

“I was distraught,” she says. “I was sure I had just ruined my opportunities to become an engineer.”

That night, she phoned her mother to discuss the situation and her fear of failure. Her mother suggested she meet with her professor to talk it over. So she did.

That meeting altered the trajectory of Schrader’s academic career.

The professor, Demosthenes Gelopulos, reassured Schrader that she had passed the test. “It turned out I did very well on the exam,” she says.

AWARDS AND HONORS: • Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from the White House (2005) • IEEE Education Society Hewlett-Packard/Harriett P. Rigas Award (2008) • Idaho Women Making History Award (2005) • WebCT Exemplary Online Course Award (2003) • Named to Valparaiso University’s Top 150 Most Influential People (2009) • Alumni Achievement Award, Valparaiso University (2011)

When the conversation turned to Schrader’s career plans, “He said that I reminded him of himself when he was younger, and he asked me if I had ever considered becoming a professor. I was shocked,” she says. “I had never thought about that.”

When Schrader was in college, there were no female professors on Valparaiso’s engineering faculty. “I hadn’t seen or met any women in that role,” Schrader says, “so it never occurred to me that I could pursue that career path.”

That discussion not only opened a new path for Schrader, it also “opened my eyes to just how important it is for faculty to express interest in their students’ career development. It’s essential.”

PROFESSIONAL SERVICE: • Member, American Society for Engineering Education; Society of Women Engineers; Tau Beta Pi; Alpha Lambda Delta; Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers • Member, ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission • Former president, IEEE Control Systems Society, with more than 10,000 members worldwide (2002-04) • Textbook co-editor, Advances in Statistical Control, Algebraic Systems Theory, and Dynamic Systems Characteristics (2008)

That’s a lesson Schrader has taken to heart. Throughout her academic career, she has tried to be a role model for students who are not well represented in the STEM disciplines, including underrepresented minorities and women.

“Being a role model is very important,” she says. “Role models, or the lack thereof, can have a big impact.”

Some of Schrader’s former students think she has made a great impact on their lives. So much so, in fact, that they nominated her for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. The former students worked together from far-flung corners of the country to prepare a proposal to recognize Schrader’s influence. In 2005, she attended the awards ceremony at the White House, where President George W. Bush recognized Schrader for her “enduring, strong and personal commitment to underrepresented engineering students and faculty.”

HOBBIES: Traveling, hiking, gardening, sports (“I think we’re becoming some of the Miners’ biggest fans,” she says), cultural activities such as theater and musical performances, reading.

A new stage

On the wall outside her Parker Hall office hangs a mural depicting chancellors, deans and directors from 1871 to 1973. The mural was painted by the late John W. “Jack” Koenig, former S&T technical editor, in 1974.

In April, when Schrader became chancellor of Missouri S&T, she assumed the most visible and significant role model position of her career. As one of only a few female engineers in the nation to lead a university, Schrader is keenly aware that she has stepped onto a new stage.

“When you’re different — such as when you’re a person who is underrepresented in your field — you will be remembered,” she says. “Since I know I will be remembered, I strive to be remembered for positive things.”

There’s no doubt about Schrader’s confidence these days. And she has left a positive impression on those she has worked with in the past.

Robert W. Kustra, president of Boise State University — where Schrader served as dean of engineering and associate vice president for strategic research initiatives prior to joining S&T — calls Schrader “the clear choice to take Missouri University of Science and Technology to the next level.” Her noteworthy accomplishments at Boise State included building “an outstanding team of faculty and staff who are lifting Boise State to national prominence” and “establishing connections and collaborations with community, government and industry partners,” Kustra says.

CONNECT ON TWITTER: Chancellor Schrader recently joined the Twitter community as a way to communicate with constituents. Follow her on Twitter: @SandTChancellor

Don P. Giddens, dean and professor emeritus at Georgia Tech, worked with Schrader when they both served on the American Society for Engineering Education Deans Council. He says Schrader’s work with ASEE has been instrumental in “helping change the conversation nationally about engineering.”

Schrader’s interest in serving as a mentor to underrepresented students began during her 12-year tenure at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which enrolls many Hispanic students. When she joined Boise State University in 2003 as dean of engineering, she continued to reach out to college students as well as high schoolers, younger students and adults. She wants to reach students of all ages — “from K through gray,” as she puts it.

During the past 10 years, the importance of mentoring has become a key component of her research to develop new approaches to teaching STEM students and guiding them toward graduation.

Increased expectations, dwindling resources

Schrader becomes chancellor of Missouri S&T amidst challenging economic times. State funding for public higher education has eroded in recent years, but the pressure on colleges and universities to remain affordable is greater than ever. Schrader describes this situation as “the new normal of increased expectations amid dwindling resources.”

Despite these challenges, Schrader is optimistic about S&T’s position in the higher education landscape.

“The global competitiveness, economic vitality and quality of life in this state and nation clearly depend upon institutions like Missouri S&T to step forward as leaders,” she says. “In doing so, S&T not only has a tremendous legacy upon which to build, but it also has the potential and momentum to become truly world class.”

Schrader sees four major challenges facing S&T — and all of public higher education — in this “new normal”:

  • An increased interest in accessibility from the public, state government, alumni, corporate partners and other groups. “There is a need to keep college affordable and accessible,” she says. Missouri S&T’s return on investment, in terms of starting salaries for graduates and other measures, helps position the university well in relation to other institutions nationally. Schrader likes to share the fact that when it comes to starting salaries for new graduates, Missouri S&T ranks second among all public universities in the nation.
  • Globalization and diversity. “Working across boundaries, cultures and ethnicities is becoming more and more important in today’s global culture,” Schrader says. “Our students need to be prepared to enter this global work force.”
  • Economic development and the changing role of the research university. “A university is no longer just an intellectual silo,” Schrader says. “It’s a social, intellectual and economic development hub.” She expects a university’s role in economic development to grow, especially as companies look to universities like S&T to conduct R&D work that companies once performed in-house.
  • The “game-changer” of cyber infrastructure. “The teaching mission of the university is no longer place-bound,” Schrader says. With the advent of online courses, “there’s an expectation that we should increase our reach” beyond the traditional residential campus, and “an expectation to use technology in ways that improve learning.” Schrader has direct experience with distance education. In 2003, while at the University of Texas at San Antonio, she and colleague Johnny Flores received WebCT’s Exemplary Online Course Award for teaching abstract concepts online.

‘Play to your strengths’

Family: Married to Jeff Schrader, an attorney and former chief legal counsel for the Idaho State Board of Education. The Schraders have two children: Andrew, who is studying mechanical engineering at Valparaiso University, and Ella, who is in kindergarten. The Schraders also have a dog named Sydney.

In the midst of these disruptive economic and societal forces buffeting campuses across the nation, how can Missouri S&T reach that world-class potential Schrader envisions? It boils down to focus and differentiation.

“It’s important to determine not only what you’re going to focus on, but also what you’re going to stop doing,” she says.

“You have the opportunity to play to your strengths. “You have to be focused and very strategic in your thinking,” she says. “It’s more important than ever to have a shared strategic plan that is at the center of all you do.”

So Schrader is working across campus, and with UM System officials, to develop that road map for the next five to 10 years. During the first few months as chancellor, her focus has been on “listening, observing and communicating.”

“Every organization has a sense of place,” she says, “and I need to fully understand Missouri S&T to be its best leader, ambassador and advocate. I want to hear what the various stakeholders envision for the future.”

She has wasted no time meeting with S&T students, faculty and staff. She has also met with several alumni groups on campus and on the road. Last April, Schrader met with members of the S&T Board of Trustees, Order of the Golden Shillelagh, Miner Alumni Association and various departmental academies. In May, she met more alumni during a swing through Texas, then met with local governmental and community leaders, as well as military leaders from nearby Fort Leonard Wood. In June, she hosted Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and his top education and economic development advisors to talk about S&T’s value to the state. She also hosted U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, whose 8th congressional district includes Rolla, to discuss national STEM education issues, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet the Missouri congressional delegation and other national leaders. This fall, she connected with more alumni during Homecoming and other recent events, including section events in Denver and California’s Bay Area.

Last June, Schrader and other campus leaders met with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and his top education and economic advisors.

“Our graduates have an uncommon loyalty, passion and commitment to this institution,” she says. “It’s because this institution helped our graduates fulfill their dreams. Our graduates and students best exemplify what this institution is.”

Alumni and their success are key players in the continuing story of this university. It’s a story that Schrader is more than happy to tell.

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