Katherine (Trina) McMahon
Civil and Environmental Engineering
CIVIL AND ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING Associate Professor Katherine (Trina) McMahon’s colleagues regard her as a world-class researcher who, with infectious excitement about the material, masterfully integrates relevant research content and concepts into carefully conceived courses. Her students characterize her as an enthusiastic, approachable and fun teacher whose passion for environmental engineering and microbiology is contagious. They praise her ability to explain complex concepts, they appreciate the value she places on each student’s contributions, and they recognize her deep commitment to her students’ success.
McMahon encourages students to challenge themselves intellectually because it is fun and rewarding. Set in an open atmosphere that encourages dialog and critical thinking, her courses combine myriad instructional elements that target several learning styles. For example, she might begin with a “show and tell” ’ perhaps a sewage sample for sniffing — and present two or three carefully worded and illustrated PowerPoint slides, then slow the pace of the lecture by writing key points on the chalkboard before posing a question or problem for group discussion. Next might come more chalkboard writing followed by multiple-choice questions the students answer via wireless “clicker” response pads and then discuss as a class. Each lecture in every course includes opportunities for the students to construct their own understanding, as well as methods for McMahon to assess their performance. Her assessment tools enable students to gauge where they are in the learning process and help McMahon determine concepts or topics that merit review. In addition, she routinely administers an end-of-semester online questionnaire (an evaluation that goes above and beyond the standard departmental course-evaluation forms) that encourages students to reflect on how aspects of her courses have contributed to their learning or developed their engineering skill sets. While those evaluations focus on student learning outcomes, McMahon also incorporates the students’ feedback into future courses.
She views teaching excellence as a lifelong evolutionary process filled with careful experimentation, iterative modification and repeated assessment. As part of this “teaching as research” approach, McMahon has participated in numerous teaching-improvement discussion groups, workshops and courses sponsored through the UW-Madison Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning and its DELTA program, the UW-Madison Teaching Academy, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. She also is involved in curriculum development and improvement activities both at the university level and throughout the national engineering community. “Not only is she actively engaged in looking for and experimenting with new ideas and approaches to teaching, but she is actively engaged in helping to improve the quality of teaching on this campus and working to provide the next generation of faculty with the skills and abilities they will need in order to be successful teachers,” says a colleague.
To that end, McMahon serves as a formal and informal mentor for faculty colleagues and actively mentors undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. She is a formal mentor with the College of Engineering Diversity Affairs Office Sloan Engineering Mentoring Program and holds an annual community-building retreat for her students and postdoctoral researchers. In addition, she encourages undergraduate involvement in research; to date, four of her undergrads have received prestigious UW-Madison undergraduate research funding. “She gave me guidance in choosing a proposal topic from the ideas that sprung up from my own curiosity,” says one undergraduate researcher. “She took care to guide my ideas, rather than push them in a certain direction, allowing me to use my own initiative. ... This ability to allow students to pursue their own ideas while still guiding them along the way is a very important attribute for excellent teachers.”