Fung Fellowship GSI Krina Patel teaches students to express themselves through design

How one teacher challenges students to bring themselves, and their life experiences, into user-centered solutions

Fung Fellowship
6 min readApr 4, 2024

Having submitted her last college application, Krina Patel was mentally prepared for a career in the medical field. However, after a baking incident left her puzzled and pressed to problem-solve, her counselor suggested she may want to shift to something more hands-on. By the fall of 2018, Krina began her first-semester studying engineering at Penn State. Little did she know that by 2022, she would be teaching it. Her goal? To help her students bring their life experiences back into the classroom.

This is her story.

So, what exactly was this baking incident?

In January of my senior year after my college applications had gone in, I was just making boxed cakes and I was very impatient. I didn’t want to wait for the butter to defrost so I just took the stick out of the freezer, put it into a bowl, and used my mom’s electric mixer to melt it. Let’s just say… the fuse kind of burnt.

The next couple of hours I spent Googling, cleaning it up, and trying to fix it before my mom returned and started yelling at me. My dad on the other hand took one look at it and was like, “The motor’s burned, there’s nothing you can do.” But I kept on trying to fix it

It was just really fun, unscrewing everything and trying to open it up, and within a week I was telling the same story to my high school counselor. It was that counselor who suggested that I might be interested in the application part of problem solving, which is really similar to what engineers do.

That’s when I started looking into mechanical engineering and other options. I quickly called back all my universities to change my application major status from pre-med to engineering. It was very last minute but I am where I am today all because of a baking mishap.

Would you say that was a good decision?

It definitely was. In the first year of my engineering education experience at Penn State, I was required to take an intro to engineering design course and let’s just say I fell in love with the problem solving part of it. That’s when I knew it was the right decision for me.

What inspired you to pursue engineering education after undergrad?

In that same class, we actually had to put into practice the engineering design process with, ironically, a cooking challenge. We had to identify two things to cook as a team and one of those items was Kulfi. Coming from an Indian household, Kulfi was one of my favorite desserts — very easy to make, but also very delicious. But as my education progressed, I had fewer and fewer opportunities to bring myself into the design problem or contextualize myself in a classroom.

When deciding what to pursue, I wondered, “Why don’t we have more opportunities like this, especially when design is so open ended and you, as a designer, are the core centerpiece of the decision making process from identifying what the problem is to actually coming up with an idea and making the prototype?” The big question for me is, “How can we bring engineers back into the classroom and express themselves through these different methodologies?” That’s what drew me to learning more about pedagogy and furthering my studies in engineering education.

Aside from a love of teaching, what brought you to the Fung Fellowship?

In my first semester at Berkeley, my advisor recommended that I explore the Fung Fellowship. After reaching out, I got to observe last year’s final presentation for their design showcase and I was just really, really impressed by their motivation, their passion. Every single design team was working on the same problem, but the way they took ownership, exercised agency towards how they solved it, and involved community stakeholders was unique to who they were.

It was really about helping the community, a task they thought about very critically and I knew that I would love to help them throughout this process. So when it came time for finding GSI positions, the Fung Fellowship was one of my top choices.

What do you hope students are taking away from your course?

My teaching pedagogy is to have students reflect a lot on the process of learning. With the human centered design that the Fung Fellowship does, I really hope they’re taking away the ethical and user-centered approach to design and how they’re conducting research.

The other thing that made me really passionate about being an instructor for the fellowship was the multidisciplinary aspect of it. My students come from various different backgrounds, disciplines and hope to pursue an array of professions. So if they’re truly learning about the process, that is something that can be applied regardless of what discipline or profession.

Considering your multidisciplinary classroom, is there anything in particular you’ve learned from your students?

I feel like I learn something every day from them, from their practices, but also how they’re approaching the ethical decision making of their research project. For example, during a lecture a few weeks ago, we did a design activity called Empathy Map. In that activity, students put together a persona to identify some of their key descriptors to determine how they might approach a problem or empathize with the user and the user’s needs.

One of the student groups brought up the idea of cultural differences and how they’re different from religious differences. Engaging in that conversation from the students and just discussing that was really inspiring. Coming from an engineering background, we never really talked about things like, “What does culture mean to you?” versus being in education, we literally had a two hour conversation on what culture is and how you define it.

Having these students like to bring it up in class and connect it to how they’re looking at their users and approaching their user research was really engaging. I really loved being part of that conversation with them.

Is there anything that you’re looking forward to in particular for the rest of the semester?

What I’m most excited about is definitely the design showcase itself. I feel like the students have worked incredibly hard this semester putting together their solutions and conducting user research so I’m really excited to see how they will put it together and present it in the final design showcase at the end of the semester.

What are your plans post-grad?

The one thing I do know is that I would love to teach engineering design. What type of university is to be determined, but as long as I get to guide students through the collaborative process of engineering design and provide them with opportunities to express themselves through interactive activities, I’ll be very fulfilled.

Connect with Krina.

Edited by Veronica Roseborough.



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