Lalita Oka, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Geomatics Engineering
I am Lalita Oka (my last name is pronounced as ‘Oak’ in my language). I am really pleased to share my journey thus far. I was born and raised in a small town named Wardha in the central, rural part of India. I completed my B.S. and M.S. in India from the University of Mumbai as a part-time student while working full-time in a privately owned civil engineering company and eventually became engineering director of the company. My supervisor was one of the few women consulting engineers in India and inspired me in my career. I came to the United States of America in 2004 to pursue my PhD in University of Vermont (UVM). After working for a year as a visiting professor at Bucknell University, PA and a year as a postdoc at UVM, I moved to Fresno in 2013 to teach at Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering and have been teaching mostly upper division and graduate classes in Geotechnical Engineering discipline in the department of Civil and Geomatics Engineering. My research interests are in Geotechnical Engineering – a study area that focuses on soils as a material that supports foundations, retaining walls, highways, dams and many other civil engineering structures. My specialization is in experimental and numerical modeling and liquefaction susceptibility of soils. I am also passionate about the success of women in the engineering field. I am very proud to be a part of a team to receive a $1.25 million grant from NSF titled "Kindling Inter-university Networks for Diverse (KIND) Engineering Faculty Advancement in the California State University System.” where in we have partnered with three CSUs (SJSU, Cal State LA, Cal-Poly SLO) to bring about systemic change to increase and retain women faculty in the engineering colleges across CSU system.
What is one teaching tip that you would like to share with your colleagues or with your younger self?
Many STEM faculty come to the United States as an international student. The education system, especially the undergraduate degree in the US, is different. When I entered academia, I struggled a lot to understand how this system works. Coming from a very traditional (blackboard-chalk) classroom, teaching with PowerPoint slides was a big challenge for me and I have never been exposed to any pedagogical methods in engineering classrooms. My initial years went in creating PowerPoint slides for my classes until I realized this is just ‘a’ method and not ‘the’ method. Students learn in multiple ways and can succeed in class provided instructor knows what is/are ‘Learning Objectives’ for the topic covered in the class. Since then, I started backward-designing my class notes / topic and I use multiple methods to teach. So, my tip for new faculty especially in STEM is to plan multiple 10-12 minutes of discussion and/or problem solving activities in each lecture. I cover two-three specific learning objectives related to the topic each day and break it down to 5-6 time slots. Then think of which method will work the best for that topic. It could be using props in the class, using PowerPoint slides, using a document camera… whatever you think will work the best. That way I am able to keep students' attention focused on the topic of the day or bring back their attention quickly. The lesson I have learned is that a key factor in student success is to keep them engaged rather than teaching all the topics you wish to cover. I remind myself every day that my role is to ‘facilitate learning’ and not to ‘teach’!
Has the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) helped to better your teaching and learning
to engage students for success? If so, how?
Coming from an engineering background, I always felt the need to train myself into various pedagogical techniques to make my lectures more effective. The Center of Faculty Excellence (CFE) was always there to help me out. I have been a regular participant in many initiatives of CFE, for example, Discover-e faculty training, Course Redesign with Technology (CRT) training from the CSU Chancellor’s Office, Affordable Learning Solutions fellow etc. The most memorable help from CFE’s came during COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot thank the CFE enough for providing all kinds of help from setting up Zoom classrooms, integrating course into Canvas, Video capturing, editing and so on… the list is very long. I am currently teaching a HyFlex course and also one of the faculty facilitators for the HyFlex faculty learning community for the Fall 2021. I believe that some pedagogical techniques that I learned during COVID-19 pandemic will stay even after we resume in person classes in future.