A Q+A With Dr. Sarira Motaref, 2019 Distinguished Engineering Educator Awardee

Dr. Motaref (left) receives her award from Associate Dean Dan Burkey (right) in a ceremony held during Senior Design Demonstration Day in May 2019. (UConn Engineering Photo)


By: Eli Freund, Editorial Communications Manager, UConn School of Engineering 

In the inaugural year of it’s existence, the University of Connecticut School of Engineering Distinguished Engineering Educator Award has been awarded to Dr. Sarira Motaref, an associate professor-in-residence and assistant director of faculty development in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Since 2011, when she came to UConn as a postdoctoral researcher, Motaref has been beloved by the hundreds of students that she has interacted with. In this Q+A, Motaref talks about her background and her tricks of the trade when it comes to educating the next generation of engineers.


1) How long have you been at UConn and where were you before?

I was a Ph.D. student in Reno, Nevada from 2007 to 2011. I received my Ph.D. in Civil engineering. My Ph.D. dissertation was on Seismic design of precast bridge columns during my study.

I joined UConn in September 2011 as a postdoctoral fellow and worked under the supervision of Dr. Richard Christenson on a project called “Bridge Weigh in Motion.” I had the opportunity to teach course of Mechanics of Materials in Fall 2012 while I was a postdoc. I loved teaching and received positive feedback from student evaluations of teaching in that semester. I got hired by UConn as an assistant professor-in-residence in the fall of 2013.


2) After winning this award, could you tell us some of your secrets and techniques that you employ in the classroom that lead to student success?

 I use flipped delivery mode in my classes. That means our class activities are switched (flipped) compared to a traditional class. My lectures videos are available in HuskyCT 24/7 and from the 1st day of class. Students need to watch the videos before each class. We have discussion about real life applications of engineering topics, solve problems individually or in a team of students, and complete homework partially during class. My students practice sample exam problems within specified times as a team. It helps them to learn working in team, collaborate with other peers, compromise and apply their knowledge towards solving an engineering problem.


3) Did you have a mentor that inspired you to go into teaching and shaped you into the educator you are today?

 Yes, I have had two role models during my undergraduate education (Mr. Zandi) and graduate education (Dr. Saiid Saiidi) who inspired me and showed me the characteristics of a good educator. I learned from them that an instructor needs to have an extensive comprehension of the topic before going to the class, needs to plan his/her teaching steps, be organized, care about students and be approachable.

I have also learned many techniques by attending different teaching workshops. I have implemented each technique little by little in my classes and tailored my teaching by carefully considering students’ feedback in my future teaching.


4) Why did you decide to go into engineering? Was there a specific moment in your life that sparked your interest?

My love for engineering is rooted in my passion for mathematics. I had a pretty strong background in math when I was in high school (in my home country, Iran). I chose a math discipline in high school that had a clear path towards select engineering majors in college.

I was lucky to get accepted into the civil engineering discipline in college, as I loved this major from the very beginning. I was able to see application of my knowledge in structures, bridges, roads, and environmental infrastructure.


5) After nearly eight years here you’ve taught hundreds, if not thousands of students. What is your impression of the undergraduates at UConn Engineering? Do they make you excited for the future of engineering?

I truly enjoy teaching our undergraduate students. I really want to see their success in my class and later in their career. I make sure to offer my students all available resources to prepare them for the real engineering problems that they face in the future.

I remind them about importance of ethics and liability. Our little mistakes in design may result in disasters that can endanger people’s lives.

I get excited when I hear my from my students who have continued their studies in graduate school, or are performing in high-level positions at well-known companies.