Education has been a journey for Ange Therese Akono – both figuratively and literally.
Her studies started in her home country of Cameroon, took her to the leading engineering school in France, and then to a doctorate program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One of ASCE’s 2016 class of New Faces of Civil Engineering Professionals, Akono now is a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, helping the next generation of civil engineers along their own journeys.
“I have been extremely empowered by my first-class engineering education,” Akono, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, said. “As an engineer, we learn to solve complex problems, we learn to make critical decisions, and we also learn to be remarkably creative. Being able to assess a puzzling situation and see the endless possibilities where other people might see a dead end is a life-changing experience.
“So I really want to empower my students through scientific research and education. I want them to feel as confident as I felt at the end of my graduate studies.”
It isn’t difficult for Akono, 28, to relate to her students. It wasn’t long ago that she was a first-year graduate student at M.I.T, fresh off a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Ecole Polytechnique in France and new to America.
She didn’t get time to relax. It was: Here’s the lab, get to work.
“I remember my first day I felt so much overwhelmed because I knew nothing about scientific experimentation,” said Akono, laughing now. “I knew nothing at all.”
She got encouragement from the professors and lab staff but no shortcuts. She built her lab from scratch, so that three years later when she had become laboratory-fluent, the accomplishment was that much sweeter. It’s how she approaches her lab students to this day.
“It was very fulfilling to be able to conduct the experiments I had designed and interpret the results using the theoretical model that I had built,” Akono said. “So I wanted my students to have that same vivid experience. This is why I went into education.”
She says her strategies in the classroom are based on a combination of positive reinforcement and challenge. She even celebrates learning from failure.
“I tell them it’s OK to fail at times. Failing and trying harder is part of the learning process,” Akono said. “For me, in my lab, if you don’t fail, you will not learn to acknowledge your mistakes and you will not develop empathy.”
And Akono’s education journey isn’t complete. It’s an ongoing adventure.
“It is still a learning curve,” Akono said. “Every day I am discovering new aspects and novel ways to relate to students. I absolutely love teaching.”
ASCE’s New Faces of Civil Engineering recognition programs highlight the next generation of civil engineering leaders. By showcasing young, diverse, talented engineers the program shows that engineering is an exciting profession open to everyone. Ten honorees are selected by ASCE in each of two divisions: collegiate and professional.
The honorees will be recognized during Engineers Week, which starts Feb. 21, and at ASCE’s annual Outstanding Projects And Leaders (OPAL) Gala, March 17, in Arlington, VA.