What do horror movies have to do with mechanical engineering?

“If you ever walk past my office and hear bloodcurdling screams, I’m just the one taking note,” said Bridget Smyser, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering.

It’s not the notes that cause the screams, to be clear, it’s Smyser’s experimentally sound notation technique, which she explained to a packed house in the Blackman Auditorium on Wednesday, at the Last Lecture event. of the University.

The ceremonial final lecture for the graduating class is fashioned after the traditional “final lecture” given by beloved retired professors popularized at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The idea took off in the mid-2000s, after Randy Pausch, a university professor who discovered he had terminal cancer, gave his final lecture there. Pausch’s lecture was turned into a book called “The Last Lecture” which became a New York Times bestseller in 2008. Since then, universities across the United States have also adopted a final series of lectures for students. graduates.

Smyser’s conference on Wednesday marked Northeastern’s second year hosting the event. In 2021 it was delivered by Rebecca Shanskyassociate professor of psychology at Northeastern.

Back to screaming (almost).

Bridget Smyser delivers the final lecture to senior graduates at Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Smyser has “always been an experimental type of person; very convenient,” she said. She embraced this experimental approach in her teaching and learning — and in her life.

Growing up on Chicago’s East Side, Smyser knew she wanted to go to college, but didn’t have much context for what that might entail. Her great-grandmother immigrated to the United States from Poland without any formal education, and each matriarch after her has accomplished a little more. Her grandmother had to drop out of school in eighth grade to care for her younger siblings, her mother had a high school diploma, and few people in Smyser’s neighborhood had college degrees.

“I didn’t know much at university; I wasn’t surrounded by people who knew the university well,” she says.


Still, Smyser was encouraged by an entourage of teachers and family members to give it a shot — and she did. Smyser earned a bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then skipped a master’s and headed straight for a doctorate from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

She began teaching at Northeastern in 1999 as an adjunct professor and became a full-time professor at the university in 2010.

However, none of this was ever in his plan.

“If you had told me in high school that I was going to be a teacher, I would have made you laugh,” she said. “I just didn’t think it was for me.” But following this unexpected journey taught her lessons she passed on to graduate students: don’t expect a straight path, and when someone believes in you, listen to them.

Smyser compiled a list of people ranging from his elementary school science teacher (Carol Katzberger) to his former supervisor and mentor at Northeastern, professor Hameed Metghalchiwho encouraged her to take risks and move on.

Indeed, it was Metghalchi, then head of the mechanical and industrial engineering department, who suggested that Smyser apply to head the Measurements and Analysis Lab, a required course for mechanical engineering students at Northeastern.

Smyser was uncertain, but applied at Metghalchi’s prompting and successfully ran the lab for over a decade. The course, which badly needed updating (the curriculum required students to bring a diskette to class in 2010) also proved to provide another lesson that Smyser shared with students: find the things that need be fixed and work hard to fix them.

“If you had told me in high school that I was going to be a teacher, I would have made you laugh,” Bridget Smyser said as she gave the final talk to graduates at Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Applying best practices for hands-on teaching, Smyser reconfigured the entire course, tweaking lessons and experiences based on student feedback from the lab each term. She followed their reported engagement in the experiences and their frustrations, and worked tirelessly to increase the former and decrease the latter. Smyser published his own research in the journal American Society for Engineering Education to report on his process and success.

Smyser had to revamp the lab once again in 2021, when public health measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 sent students home to learn remotely.

“Things that really need to be fixed aren’t usually easy to fix,” she said.

Smyser took her own advice when, after being diagnosed in her 40s with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD, she began experimenting with ways to note reports of her students’ lab—a task she loved but found herself easily distracted from—more effectively. Her expanded role as head of the lab meant she had more student work to correct and needed a better way to do it.

Bridget Smyser delivers the final lecture to senior graduates at Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Being the experimental person that she is, Smyser applied an engineering design process to the problem.

She identified the problem: “ADHD and extended tasks are still lagging behind,” she said.

She understood the needs: any solution had to be applicable both in her office and at home, because she marked the assignments in both places.

She brainstormed solutions: mindfulness meditation, clearing her workspace, listening to background noise, using a dart board to assign random marks.

She weighed the possible solutions: mindful meditation didn’t go that far; Smyser couldn’t completely empty her desk because she had books and papers she needed; and throwing a dart was out of the question if she wanted to keep her job (she did).

Finally, she experimented with background noise. The total silence left too much space for his own thoughts, the white noise was either annoying or so deep in the background that it was as good as total silence, the music was too distracting.

Smyser finally found something that worked: “Bad found-frame horror movies,” she said.

Back to screaming (for real).

The stereotypical movies were predictable enough that Smyser didn’t have to focus too closely to know what was going on, but they were entertaining enough to occupy her brain, she said.

“Life is experimental and open,” Smyser told graduate students, a few of whom wore their Commencement badges in the audience. “I hope you all find that person who believes in you and listen to them. Find things you can contribute to because it will be so worth it.

For media inquiriesplease contact [email protected].