“Research and Practice are Intricately Intertwined”
At EPFL, Roland Tormey combines research into engineering education with hands-on support in his new appointment as a Senior Scientist in the College of Humanities.
Tormey is a sociologist by training and began working in teacher education in the 1990s in Ireland. His research focused on inequality, inter-cultural education, and identity. From that starting-point, he also began to develop an interest in emotion. He recalls, “there was very little work on emotion and inter-cultural education…At that time there was just the beginning of a realization that discrimination and inequality very often arise from emotions as much as from mental representations.”
He observed that angry responses are often an expression of power dynamics and began to focus on “helping teachers to develop the competence to be aware of their own emotions and then let that feed into their judgement.” He explored these themes as the head of the teacher education department at the University of Limerick before he joined EPFL.
Tormey initially came to EPFL in 2011 to collaborate with Pierre Dillenbourg and then agreed to stay and become the director of the new Teaching Support Center (CAPE) when it was first established in 2013. For Tormey, joining the CAPE brought an important shift in focus from teacher education to engineering education. He stresses that inequality and diversity are important issues in both contexts and notably factor into engineering teamwork: “diverse teams make better decisions because they question themselves more. There tends to be less group-think. But being able to work in those teams requires a certain minimum level of emotional connection that enables that questioning to take place.”
Tormey underlines the importance of the concept of “desirable difficulty” for effective collaboration. “You may prefer to work with your friends, but you have a greater chance of being productive if you are working in a group where people question you more.” Yet teams must first “build enough coherence and shared warmth to enable that friction to happen.”
At EPFL, Tormey has continued to investigate the role played by emotions in teamwork and also in engineering ethics. Drawing inspiration from the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, he explains the importance of emotions for ethical decision-making: “if intelligence means the ability learn and to adapt to your world, then by definition emotions are intelligent because emotions help us learn and help us adapt to our world. They give us information that helps us make good decisions if we use that information correctly.” He remarks that consideration for the role of emotions has been notably absent in engineering ethics education. He is currently participating in two different international collaborations to survey existing research on this topic in order to establish a baseline for future work.
He also conducts practice-oriented research in order to help address the strategic priorities defined by the EPFL Direction. Those goals include improving student learning in the first year as well as promoting project-based education in teams. Tormey’s scholarly work on ethics and diversity align closely with this practical mission to support collaborative learning.
Tormey describes the services that the CAPE provides to the EPFL community and the scholarship produced by its members as a “virtuous cycle.” For example, research on gender dynamics in groupwork helped his colleague Siara Isaac develop the Make it Awkward Workshop. Tormey explains, “We don’t do research for its own sake. I don’t mean that as a criticism of blue skies research…it’s just not what we do. We do pedagogical engineering research. Research and practice are intricately intertwined.”
In his new role as Senior Scientist, Tormey will continue to conduct practice-oriented research to support the EPFL community as it shifts out of pandemic-mode, while also pursuing his scholarly collaborations focused on the role of emotions in engineering ethics.