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,
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
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
"I remember as a student at MIT which courses
taught me a tremendous amount; someone made that possible and enjoyable
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,"
"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
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
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
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
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org