PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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Teaching Toolbox
Teaching - Becoming a Student…Again

- By Phillip Wankat   

While becoming an "estudiante del español," Phillip Wankat gets a refresher course on being a teacher.

When most professors look out at a classroom full of young and carefree faces, they tend to forget how hard student life—where one is continually judged—can be. But faculty can recapture those feelings by taking a course in a subject outside the realm of their expertise. The experience—while humbling—can enable a better understanding of students' struggles and may even give professors an opportunity to pick up some new teaching tools.

I have personally reconnected with student life by taking a course in Spanish. And the experience has given me a refreshing view from the other side of the lectern. For instance, I now understand why many engineering students look tired after a lecture. After an hour of class, I find myself exhausted. Also, I feel much less pressure working with other students in a group than with the teacher, even though there are no grades and she is nice. And I've noticed that all students welcome some sort of comic relief during a rigorous class. We seem to laugh a lot more in Spanish than in engineering classes.

After teaching the same course year after year, it can be easy to forget how important it is to teach with enthusiasm and warmth. By the end of my first Spanish class, the teacher knew all our names and reasons for taking Spanish. When we arrive she greets us by name, and we all say "adios" when we leave. She is always the first in the classroom and seldom seems to be in a hurry to leave—she actually seems to enjoy the class. Like engineering students, I invariably make mistakes and need help. The teacher's comportment is important here: If she were to yell at me or make me feel stupid for my mistakes, I probably wouldn't return—so her kindness is highly valued. I, in turn, am trying to be kinder in my engineering classes.

Summer vacation has also refreshed my memory of how easy it is to forget. During the three-month break between the spring and fall semesters, I managed to bury a tremendous amount of Spanish somewhere deep in my mind. The first class back was painful because I didn't remember much of what I had worked so hard to learn. Fortunately, much of it resurfaced after a review. But now I understand why engineering students seem to remember nothing at the start of the semester. As a student, I have to keep reviewing material throughout the term until it sinks in. But I know that it is not enough just to study—I must study effectively. I tend to avoid doing the parts that are hardest and that I most need to do—like speaking Spanish—and focus on activities that I am better at—like reading. Now I better understand similar behavior from my students.

To learn Spanish, much of the class needs to be in Spanish. Likewise, in engineering, much of the class needs to use the language of engineers. Often when learning my Spanish vocabulary, I find the one-word definition in the verb book is more helpful than the thirty words the dictionary uses. Other times I
need the more complete definition. Engineering students need resources also, but many engineering textbooks are too detailed. So, while an engineering professor needs to use simpler language on occasion, a good teacher should try to be conscious of when the complete definition is needed.

On the surface, it would seem that foreign language and engineering require fundamentally different ways of learning. But I've found that certain exercises I do in Spanish would work well in an engineering course. In the "find mistakes" homework problems, the teacher provides sentences with spelling or grammatical errors, and the students find and correct these errors. Engineering professors could easily provide flawed solutions to problems and ask students to find and correct the mistakes.

All in all, the learning experience has been a rewarding struggle that has started me on the path of communicating with another culture, and has reminded me what it is like to be a student, albeit a very "average" one. As a professor, I am now trying to help my students learn how to communicate with the culture of engineers while I remember that they are students.

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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