Alumni Profile: Shayla Sawyer, Ph.D. ’06

Shayla Sawyer

In November, Rensselaer launched the Douglas A. Mercer ’77 Innovation and Exploration Laboratory, a unique makerspace that aims to facilitate innovation in pedagogy and multiply learning opportunities by fostering interconnection among students and faculty.

The Mercer XLab will provide a learning ecosystem that actively engages faculty, students, and staff in an educational experiment to amplify the learning experience of students. It will offer intentional spaces to build innovations, find collaborations, share technical tools, and aggregate results from the explorations of participants to multiply the impact of innovators.

The inaugural director of the Mercer XLab is Shayla Sawyer, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering (ECSE) and a champion of hands-on, design-infused engineering education.

“The X in the Mercer XLab represents the multiplication of ideas, multiplication of learning, and the unknowable, exciting endpoint from the point we are starting from,” Sawyer says. “When there is an ambitious vision felt strongly, you need the perspectives of others to add to your potential and the intentional space to explore, assess, fail, and iterate. This has been my entire lived experience in many facets of my life.”

Student holding up her work and smiling, surrounded by other students

Sawyer, who earned her doctorate in electrical engineering from RPI in 2006, is now an accomplished researcher and revered professor, but that is not the path she originally intended. She began as a student-athlete at Hampton University with aspirations to work for General Electric as a technical manager. Supportive, engaged professors like Hampton University Dean and former RPI Professor Morris Morgan, who earned his Ph.D. from RPI in 1978, and retired ECSE Professor Ken Connor influenced her decision to go to graduate school and, ultimately, strive to make an impact on the future through a career in academia.

Sawyer remembers how it felt as a student to have to fight for space to get hands-on benchtop equipment in a lab group. She says she knows firsthand the pressure of being afraid to fail in front of a group “because one failure, one misaligned wire, one upside down op-amp chip, means it may be the last chance that the group will trust my hands to try.”

She points to innovative ideas that earlier ECSE faculty championed to give students more opportunities and better access to critical information. “I wonder if Don Millard, who invented the Mobile Studio Board, thought of the many students like me who needed the time on their own to trust their own hands, to make a mistake, and try again without the risk of being pushed to the margins? I wonder if Ken Connor thought of me when he thought about increasing access to learning by providing videos and notes before class and using lecture time to explore with discussion, hands-on work, and questions.”

Ken Connor, Douglas A. Mercer, Don Millard
Ken Connor, Douglas A. Mercer ’77, and Don Millard at the launch of the Mercer XLab reception.

A few years after witnessing these innovations as a young professor, Sawyer was encouraged to take the same level of risk and innovate within the classroom environments she teaches. She says there were, and continue to be, significant triumphs, failures, and iterations on the way. “I’ve seen students who sit in back corners of the classroom raise their hands to answer concepts; I’ve seen actual tears of joy when a student passed a milestone for a project they’ve built to prove a concept; and I’ve seen failure and recovery that ends in demonstrations like a self-regulated hydroponic system, or cabin pressure sensor system, of heart rate stress indicator; I’ve seen the diversity of cultures, faces, and genders that actively participate.”

She believes passionately that if unnecessary barriers to learning were lowered, the students will demand that the expectation of excellence is simultaneously raised. “I believe that with the right alignment of cross-disciplinary skills and expertise, we could design, implement, and assess learning technologies embedded in teaching approaches that spark an entirely new way of learning,” she says.

Sawyer’s advice to students? “Whatever your personal, perceived potential is, make the decision to multiply that potential in a dynamic community of thinkers, tinkerers, explorers, and innovators. The XLab is a space where students, faculty, and staff can come together to actively pursue a revolution at RPI and push the boundaries of what it means to learn at an academic institution.”