By Kevin Gray
For her teaching skills and work on curriculum to support the awareness and development of sustainable systems and retention of students in engineering and technology, Leah Figur Akins ’82 received the 2011 State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Professor and head of engineering, architecture, and computer technology, Dutchess Community College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Akins has a particular focus on recruiting more students, especially underrepresented groups, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. She personally advises each applicant to engineering science or electrical technology about the spectrum of careers in engineering.
The importance of finding a proper fit in the industry mirrors career guidance she received as an undergraduate at Lafayette, where she majored in electrical engineering. In the summer after her junior year, Akins took a job as a junior engineer for New York Telephone.
“I didn’t care for the job at all,” she recalls. “Halfway through my senior year, I complained about my views of the engineering jobs I had seen over the summer to Professor Thomas Reilly in the electrical engineering department and told him I did not see myself in that kind of engineering job.”
Reilly suggested she pursue a master’s degree to access jobs that would interest her more, but Akins didn’t have the funds to continue her education.
“A few weeks later,” she recalls, “he approached me about becoming a lab instructor at Lafayette, which would pay for my tuition at graduate school. Within the first week of teaching engineering, I knew that was the career for me.”
Akins earned her master’s in electrical engineering from Lehigh and her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Drexel University.
“Professor Reilly had a significant impact on me and my career,” she says. “Without [his guidance], I probably would have gone to work as an engineer straight out of college and become part of the statistics of those who leave the field.”
Akins began her career at DCC in 1990 as an adjunct and became full time in 1997. In addition to teaching, her responsibilities as department head include assisting with curriculum development and modification, course and program scheduling, strategic planning, faculty professional development, and faculty hiring.
Akins served as chair of DCC’s assessment committee and was a faculty representative on the SUNY Chancellor’s Group of 200 that helped develop the 2010 SUNY Strategic Plan.
“I have truly enjoyed learning about the programs and careers in all of these technical areas,” says Akins. “I love the atmosphere at a college, interacting with young people and hearing new ideas every day, and the support and camaraderie of faculty.”
A member of American Society of Engineering Education, she has conducted research focused on assessing students’ team-building skills to help them improve.
“In the electrical technology program, we developed and instituted a process of team assessment that is used in all the lab-based courses,” she explains.
Data from the assessment is used to help students learn and articulate their strengths and weaknesses. To “close the loop” on this process, an exit interview is required of all graduating students, conducted by members of the program’s advisory board.
“From this feedback, we can state that the team-assessment process has a significant impact on improving their team-building skills, acknowledging their strengths, and identifying what they still need to work on,” Akins says.
For the future, she plans to research the impact of focused academic advisement on retention in the engineering science, electrical technology, and telecommunications technology programs.
She is treasurer of the Hudson Valley executive committee of Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO® League program, designed to interest students as young as 5 years old in the STEM disciplines.
“Aside from the excellent instruction, challenging faculty, and wonderful college atmosphere, I often tell people Lafayette is where I learned how to manage my time effectively regardless of how daunting the tasks,” says Akins, who is married to Jefferson Akins ’82. They live in Highland, N.Y.