Researcher uses award to create WebMD of academic advising

October 6, 2016

Paul Alongi, College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences
Originally posted in the Newsstand October 4, 2016

One of Clemson University’s newest faculty members is working to develop an online dashboard that could become the WebMD of academic advising, helping students make the crucial decisions that can mean the difference between dropping out and graduating.

Marisa Orr envisions an academic dashboard that would help students review decision-making strategies, track study habits and hear testimonials from peers who successfully navigated their way through challenges.

The work grew out of research showing that students who remain in college the longest without graduating are the least likely to change majors. Orr hopes to identify those students early in their academic careers and equip them with the tools they need to adapt.

Sept. 30, 2016 - Dr. Marisa Orr Joint Appointment Assistant Professor Engineering Mechanics Office: 227 Fluor Daniel Building Phone: (864) 656-3078 Fax: (864) 656-4435 Email:   Dr. Orr teaches integrated Dynamics and Statics. Her research focuses on student progress, persistence, and pathways using longitudinal student data from the Multi-Institution Database For Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development (MIDFIELD). Dr. Orr recently received an NSF Early Career Development (CAREER) grant to support her research in student decision-making.   Here, she is in class in the Dillard Building on campus.

Marisa Orr Teaches a mechanical engineering class at Clemson University.

“A lot of students come in with one major in mind, and they stick with it until the bitter end and maybe are not successful,” Orr said. “Part of our work is looking at it and saying, ‘Can we identify some patterns so that we can catch those students earlier and help them find something that’s a better fit for them?’”

Her research is part of a $518,000 award she received through the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development program, often called the NSF CAREER award.

Orr is a new faculty member at Clemson, but she has been a Tiger for years.

Orr earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Clemson and stayed for her Ph.D., also in mechanical engineering. While at Clemson, Orr also received a certificate in engineering and science education.

She left Clemson to begin building her career. Orr started off as a postdoctoral researcher at Purdue University and later became an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Louisiana Tech.


Marisa Orr created “Traditional Advising” to help illustrate the research she is doing as part of her NSF CAREER award.

Now that Orr is back where the Blue Ridge yawns its greatness, she is an assistant professor with a dual appointment in the departments of Engineering and Science Education and Mechanical Engineering.

“I did my graduate and undergraduate work here, so I consider it home,” Orr said. “It’s good to be back. There are so many great things going on, particularly with the engineering and science education program. I also like that there is a fantastic cohort of graduate students who are thoughtful and collaborative.”

The Department of Engineering and Science Education has doubled the number of faculty members in the past year. Three-fourths are either current or past recipients of NSF CAREER awards.

Cindy Lee, the department’s chair, said that Orr is a welcome addition to the team.

“We’re excited that Marisa has decided to return to Clemson,” Lee said. “Her insight will not only be valuable to the department’s graduate students but also to the success of students in General Engineering and across the college and eventually the nation. The NSF CAREER award is one of the nation’s highest honors for a junior faculty member. It is a testament to her outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of the two.”

In the typical advising model, students meet an advisor 15-30 minutes each term, Orr said. Students would have the dashboard available to them outside of advising week and could help them reflect throughout the school year, according to the proposal for her NSF CAREER award.

The dashboard will be designed to enhance faculty-student interaction, not replace it.

“The academic dashboard is to advising as WebMD is to the medical industry,” Orr wrote in her proposal. “People should still see a doctor when they are sick, but if they visit WebMD first, they may come more informed and prepared with relevant questions.”

Orr is also teaching a section of a mechanical engineering course that she helped start when she was a graduate student. “Statics and Dynamics for Mechanical Engineers” is one of the first courses that students take as mechanical engineering majors.

Some universities teach statics and dynamics separately, but the course at Clemson combines them. Students learn in a SCALE-UP classroom with round tables, lots of projectors and white boards.

“With that combination of things, they end up learning more statics than they would have learned in a statics course and more dynamics than they would have learned in a dynamics course,” Orr said. “Overall, students end up performing better in that integrated class.”