Engineering Practice Associate Professor Line van Nieuwstadt practices a well-rounded life

April 9, 2018

For 20 years, van Nieuwstadt has blended work and family, and life in and outside the university. She’s now teaching her students how to do the same.

 Line van Nieuwstadt
Line van Nieuwstadt

For 20 years, Line van Nieuwstadt has blended work and family, and life in and outside the university. She’s now teaching her students how to do the same.

Line van Nieuwstadt’s brightly lit office overlooking the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s high bay lab is a place where students have come to expect conversations that stretch beyond their current troubles with Calc 3.

Van Nieuwstadt is, of course, happy to help with those if that’s what they’ve arrived for. Even then, her academic coaching is likely to be peppered with hard-won wisdom on a variety of other topics.

Like, her thoughts on why her students should take a run at the GRE early and completely cold, just to see where they stand—accompanied, she would suggest, by enough chocolate to take the edge off the potentially life-altering exam. Or, some general counsel on balancing career with raising a family—featuring anecdotes of how she, more than once, successfully navigated her rigorous NASA design reviews with her pre-K kids munching Cheerios in the corner. Or, questions that push her many first-generation college students to think about the subtle ways their educational journeys will transform their lives.

“When you’re third- or fourth-generation and your family is sprinkled with lawyers and physicians and Ph.D.s, you know that landscape, even if you don’t know all the details of that path,” van Nieuwstadt said. “If you’re first-generation, education is a means to an end. But have you really thought about what that end is? And are you ready for the fact that as soon as you get your degree, you will face a cultural gap between you and the rest of your family? There are a lot of expectations and burdens that come with that.”

Her colleagues often joke that she should become a social worker. Those instincts, she said, trace back to her parents: Two understanding California pharmacists who wanted her to follow in their footsteps and instead got a daughter who dreamed of launching rockets and loved to sing.

“I actually had them sign a waiver so I wouldn’t have to take biology because it conflicted with the choir schedule,” van Nieuwstadt said. “I was stubborn about it, but my parents trusted me.”

Needless to say, the vision for pharmacy died with the disinterest in biology. But the dream of launching rockets stuck, although the path of how to get there wasn’t always clear.

Despite being at the top of her high school class, van Nieuwstadt was twice declined admission to UC-Berkeley's College of Engineering. After that, she enrolled at nearby Cal Poly Pomona, a school she said was not unlike UM-Dearborn, where many students, as she did, lived at home and commuted to school. She chipped away at her studies and landed an internship at Hewlett Packard during her sophomore year that helped her reimagine her future.

“I spent two summers there, and I got exposed to engineers who had graduated from MIT and Stanford and other top-tier engineering schools,” she said. “So I learned a lot from them about what I needed to do if I wanted to be an engineer. The promise I made to myself was that I would go to the highest-ranked engineering school that accepted me.”

That ended up being Cornell, where van Nieuwstadt said she had a “humbling” tenure as a master’s student. She was consistently second or third from the bottom in most of her classes, despite having a 3.8 GPA. “I just didn’t have the proper preparation. When you develop curriculum, you have to prepare students properly for the next phase. And I wasn’t ready.”

That experience is still a big part of what shapes her approach with her students. Thorough academic preparation is part of that. But she also specializes in a brand of mentoring she is perhaps uniquely qualified to offer.

Since 2014, her official position at the university has been “professor of engineering practice,” a singular title which nods to a resume balanced with both academic and public and private sector engineering experience. Early on, that included being one of only a few women on the team that launched NASA’s Sojourner Mars Rover; later, it was in research positions at Michigan Tech and UM-Ann Arbor. The hope is that her experience living in both worlds can provide students a lesson that’s sometimes hard to teach: A clear picture of just what’s going to be demanded of them “in the span of one second where you’re handed a degree and expected to start working.”

For example, as adviser to her college’s competition teams, where students design and build everything from rockets to electric cars to autonomous snowplows, she instituted a “pitching” system similar to one you might find in the corporate world.

“At the beginning of the school year, I give all 11 teams an hour of the dean’s time,” van Nieuwstadt said. “If they want to pitch a $5,000 project, they have three minutes. If it’s $30,000, it’s seven minutes. And I sit there with a timer, and when your time is up, it’s up. In the business world, time is money. I want them to understand the expectations.”

Van Nieuwstadt has even been known to use herself as a teaching case. Now that her kids are in high school, she’s moonlighting for NASA again (right now she’s working on hurricane monitoring spacecraft) and dragging her students in to observe her grueling design reviews. As it was with her own children back in the day, the expectation is that they sit in the corner and try not to make too much noise.

“When they see me getting grilled, then they really understand,” van Nieuwstadt said. “One of my students told me, ‘Now I don’t feel so bad when you’re pushing us so hard.’ They see that it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly engineering.”