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WIZARDRY AT WORK

By Barbara Mathias-Riegel

Ask inventor and industrialist, Joel Spira, what it takes to qualify for the Ruth and Joel Spira Excellence in Teaching Award, and he doesn't hesitate. "Magic," he says. "It's an individual with a magic; some people have the gift of teaching, and that's what I want to encourage." Joel Spira, founder and chairman of Lutron Electronics, says that when he started out at Brooklyn Polytech he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer; that is, until he met a professor, the late Edgar Slack, who taught him physics. "He gave me a lifelong love for physics and also an appreciation of what a magic teacher is all about."

A 1948 physics graduate of Purdue, Spira formed Lutron Electronics in 1961 in order to market his invention of the first commercial electronic solid-state dimmer for incandescent lighting. He is currently credited with 117 U.S. patents and holds three honorary doctorates in engineering, including one from Purdue.
Spira ardently believes in recognizing the importance of American engineering education and its crucial role in the nation's and world's economic growth and health. Twenty years ago he set up the Ruth and Joel Spira Awards for Excellence in Teaching which has since gone to over a hundred teachers from a number of universities (Cornell, Georgia Tech, Lehigh, MIT, U. of Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, Purdue).

There's no glitzy Web site telling how the award works. Each year, Spira simply writes a letter to a dean at a university of his choice, and charges him to select an excellent teacher. "Each school is different; it may be decided by a department head, or a committee, but the deans always have a hand in it," explains Spira.

David Trumper, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT has had the honor of winning the award twice for his development of two major courses in mechatronics for seniors and graduate students, and engineering systems dynamics for sophomores; both involve a great deal of individual work in the laboratory. "I like interacting with students," says Trumper, who emphasizes that several of his colleagues were instrumental in helping him set up and teach these courses.

"I remember as a student at MIT which courses taught me a tremendous amount; someone made that possible and enjoyable…they turned the subject on for me. If you can turn it on for a sophomore, given the type of students at MIT, who knows what you will see them doing five or ten years from now?"

Trumper's philosophy touches on what Joel Spira has believed for many years about teaching. "You have to know your subject; know how to portray the information so it is clear and unambiguous; make it easy to understand; and you have to make it exciting," says Spira. "You can feed the students gibberish and get them excited, but they walk out into the world and don't know what to do. So all four points are necessary."

"I'm not sure that I won this award so much for my teaching, but that I give the students very good opportunities for them to teach themselves," says Diann Brei, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and a 2001 Spira awardee. Faced with large classes (80-150 people) that threatened her goal to make students feel they were getting a personalized education, Brei says she decided to " divide and conquer" by setting up teams of four that work in and out of the classroom on projects where they have to build something in the shop. Representatives from each team report back, giving Brei a class of 20-30. "The group of four still has a say, so they feel they have a voice," says Brei.

"Teaching is an all or nothing thing," continues Brei. "You either love it, or you don 't. I tell my graduate students, 'go teach a course before you graduate, that will tell you, if you like it then, you'll know.'"

Brei obviously "loves it," but her biggest constraint, she says, is balancing the research she does on some 30 projects with teaching two to three classes. "I would love to have more time on my teaching; I don't think we ever get enough time."

The balance of teaching versus engineering is a very serious issue, says Spira. "I believe that professors who teach should be of equal value to people who do research. Young professors are at the showdown at the OK coral. They come in and if they don't get tenure at a reasonable time, they get kicked out. They've got to go on to some other school, and usually that ranking is not what they had. Usually promotion and tenure is based on research."

Fortunately, there are ways to make that balance work. "I've come to grips with mentoring projects by linking my research interest areas with the student projects, says Sven Bilén, assistant professor of engineering design and electrical engineering at Pennsylvania State University and a 2002 Spira winner. Bilén has several undergraduate projects in conjunction with NASA that bring in his research interest in microgravity. To date, teams of his students have flown twice on the "vomit comet," the KC-135a, in order to test their design for an astronaut exercise harness, and experience weightlessness.

In addition, Bilén's research on iconospheric plasma physics and plasma probes, has allowed him to participate in a nanosatellite project, which is partly funded by NASA. Called LionSat, his students' design and work will be competing nationally against other universities. "I would like to think that this award, recognizes the balance I'm striking," says Bilén.

Another Spira awardee who makes the balance is Patricia Davies from Britain, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue whose research in modeling and vibration, as well as sound quality and signal processing and how it affects people's response and performance, inspired her to link graduate students with a group of psychology and engineering faculty.

"My view is that if you have a love of what you are doing in your research, then you also should have a love of transmitting your enthusiasm for that to undergraduates and graduates, making them want to carry on and do research. The way we do research at Purdue is with our graduate students. You need good graduate students…and you need to fire them up about the research while you're teaching them the fundamental things. And the problem is this takes time."

According to Davies, the biggest challenge to teaching isn't balancing the research, but rather, balancing "endless meetings" that try to meet the changes and demands from administration. And yet, she notes: "I have to allow for the fact that if you go to these meetings and they get things moving, you can make a big change and improve people's lives."

Another sign of excellent teachers may be that they rarely tire of teaching and being with the students. William B. Berry, a professor of electrical engineering who has been at Notre Dame since 1963, says that despite the fact that he retires this year, the Spira award continues to impact his career. "I would be encouraged to come back and teach others, if they want me to do so."

When asked if someone can "learn" to be a good teacher, he reflected: "You can learn to do it; it's a difficult task. I think people who teach really well, they do it naturally. It's just part of their character, part of the way they relate to people, and their insight to what it takes to get someone excited about something."

And yet, says Berry, there is that certain mystery to the art of teaching. "I've often been amazed when I go into a classroom and I think, this is really good, a smooth lecture, and then someone will come up to me afterwards and say: 'What was that all about?' And then there are other days when I stumble through something and they get it!"

Berry received the award because of the introduction to design classes that he put together for the past two years. This included taking half the class to study in London for a semester, where he taught two courses, one on signal systems, and the other on the development of technology in the United Kingdom. "It was something new for me," notes Berry, "so I had to develop it and draw on whatever sources I could find while I was there. There were 17 students and I got to know them very well."

Berry was to receive the Spira award as a surprise at the commencement ceremony last spring. But someone in the dean's office apparently blew it when Berry got a call asking what he wanted to do with the money. "What money?" he asked. When the award was later given at commencement, Berry claims he was still surprised by it all.

And what will he do with the $2,000 award? "I've put it in a discretionary account to help students pay for some materials and things they need for projects," says Berry. "I pay them back a little bit that way."

 

Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer in Washinton, D.C.
She can be reached at bmathiasriegel@asee.org

 

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