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Q&A with HCDE new Assistant Teaching Professor Sarah Coppola

Leah Pistorius
September 29, 2020

Sarah Coppola
Dr. Sarah Coppola

In September 2020, the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering welcomed its newest faculty member, Assistant Teaching Professor Sarah Coppola.

Dr. Coppola came to HCDE from the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she was a Human Factors Engineering postdoctoral fellow. Previously she has worked as a Reliability Engineer, High School STEM AmeriCorps Fellow, and Adjunct Faculty at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Dr. Coppola holds a doctoral degree in Environmental Health with a major in Ergonomics and Safety from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a Master’s degree in Human Factors Engineering from Tufts University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University. 

In this Q&A, Dr. Coppola talks more about her background and what she is looking forward to in her new role at the University of Washington.

What were you doing before joining HCDE?

I was a postdoc researcher at John Hopkins Medicine, where I did human factors engineering. I was working in anesthesiology, studying medication safety in the operating room. Anesthesiology is a highly skilled, highly trained, high-risk field that's completely dependent on a human doing everything right—right dose, right medicine, right patient. As a human factors engineer, I know that humans can make mistakes. So that was a great place to study and learn from the medical experts around me.

What was your day-to-day work like at Hopkins?

We had a patient safety lab where I worked with engineers, psychologists, and clinicians. My background is in engineering, and I am very interested in the technology within the hospital room—how the anesthesiologist makes sense of the technology around them and how they interact with the technology to do their job. Others on my team were on the cognitive side, studying how the anesthesiologist gathers information and how they make decisions.

I also was on a project doing usability testing on a pediatric trauma dashboard. In an academic hospital, up to 30 people can respond to a pediatric trauma patient. We designed a team-based interface to display information, facilitate communication among the teams, and help with handoffs between departments. So we were conducting usability studies on that dashboard. Both projects had to be adjusted because of the pandemic, so I’m still wrapping those up.

What excites you about your new role?

I am really excited to work at UW because it has everything I could possibly want. There are folks doing disability and accessibility, there's a medical center, there's public health, there's a great school for engineering—and not just engineering, Human Centered Design and Engineering! I look forward to many collaborations and to bringing many of these pieces together in my classroom. 

What are you going to be teaching first in HCDE?

This autumn quarter I will be teaching HCDE 518, the graduate course on introduction to user-centered design. This will be new to me at the graduate level, but I have taught similar courses at the undergraduate level. I taught a course called Designing Stuff People Can Use at Tufts, and I taught Human Factors in Design  at Wentworth Institute of Technology. 

How are you preparing for the remote quarter?

I have become so reliant on the physical environment around me when I teach, so adapting to do this remotely is going to be a challenge. It’s a challenge for all of us faculty to rethink the pedagogy and rethink our courses to support learning, by really asking what students need out of this class and what's the best way to deliver that.

Right now I am rethinking my course structure—planning to record lectures so they can be delivered asynchronously, and schedule in advance other times when students can meet together for group work or Q&A panel sessions with experts. 

What do you like to do when you're not working?

I really like to get involved with my local community. I am involved with activism and advocacy communities around disability issues, particularly related to the built environment. I have lived in several old cities that have terrible access issues, where sidewalks are basically not navigable. I look forward to getting involved with the disability community in Washington! In addition to advocacy work, I like to read, participate in book clubs, and play trivia. My book club is now operating online so that's been a fun way to stay connected.

Anything you want to share with the HCDE community?

I am looking forward to meeting everyone when I can, and becoming part of the HCDE community. This is a hard time for everyone, and I want to make sure students are getting what they need, and make sure they feel supported socially and emotionally. If anyone wants to say hi or chat, I am always happy to connect with people so feel free to email me at