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For MSU engineering lecturer, profession award marks integration she teaches to students

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By Marshall Swearingen MSU NEWS SERVICE

BOZEMAN — When Montana State University faculty member Elizabeth Varnes joined the world’s largest professional society of electrical engineers as a college freshman in 1981, she didn’t imagine that one day she would receive the organization’s highest level of membership — or that the varied parts of her career would come together in the form of teaching.

Elizabeth Varnes was recently named a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. PHOTO BY COLTER PETERSON / MSU

Varnes, a lecturer in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, was recently named a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. The achievement, which according to IEEE recognizes professional maturity, has been an occasion for her to reflect on what she has learned and what she now passes along to her students, she said.

“I talk to my students quite a bit about integration, how to pull together different pieces of knowledge and expertise in an engineering project to make it work,” Varnes said. “So much of life is actually like that, too.”

That kind of integration is at the heart of the course she teaches, Multidisciplinary Engineering Design. In the junior-level class, teams made up of students with different engineering majors tackle an intensive semester-long design challenge, testing their ability to communicate across multiple disciplines and solve problems like they would in the workplace.

“It’s really all about helping students see that, as juniors, they’ve gathered all these great skills, and now it’s time to apply them,” she said.

After earning her bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina in 1986, Varnes worked at a naval warfare center and then for a military contractor. Highlights from those years include leading the sort of high-level design integration that she now teaches. Later, she worked as a technical writer for the Navy and Department of Homeland Security.

“With my students, I really stress communication skills,” Varnes said. “I tell them they might be brilliant engineers but it doesn’t matter if they can’t share their ideas.”

During her time working with naval systems, Varnes also had the opportunity to live aboard-ship where there were few other women. That experience continues to motivate her to contribute to MSU’s Women in Engineering program, which hosts events and provides resources to support female students in a field where they are still significantly underrepresented. More generally, it inspires her to see her students as individuals and meet them where they are, she said.

“I really try to talk with students about what their interests and gifts are,” Varnes said. “If they’re struggling in a certain area, we talk about how to work on that.”

“Faculty like Beth who have decades of experience greatly enhance the educational experience for our students,” said Brett Gunnink, dean of the engineering college. “Besides bringing her valuable expertise to an important interdisciplinary design class, she serves as an excellent role model for all students — especially our women students.”

Varnes also serves as special assistant to the dean, a role in which she’s the liaison with the engineering college’s advisory board composed of industry leaders from around the country, many of them MSU alumni. To leverage their experience and give her students further insight into the life of professional engineering, she has spearheaded a project to record short interviews with advisory board members and show them during class.

While working as a technical writer, Varnes helped develop engineering curriculum on the side, which sparked her interest in education and led her to MSU six years ago — a decision she said she celebrates along with receiving the IEEE honor. She joins nine faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in having the distinction.

“I really love the people here,” she said. “There’s a passion and an energy for helping students.”

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