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A Smith College professor adopts a coaching style, letting students find answers and master concepts.

Glenn Ellis’s classes are like a treasure hunt. He supplies the map and a few clues, and then steps back to watch his students find the hidden gold. “The whole curriculum is designed around making aha! moments,” he says.

Since Ellis helped launch Smith College’s Picker engineering program in 2001 — the nation’s first engineering degree at a women’s college — those aha! moments have multiplied into an education success story. The program boasts a 90 percent retention rate and draws a high proportion of low-income and minority students — this at a time when engineering departments nationwide lose nearly half their students and in a field where both women and minorities are still woefully under-represented.

In recognition of this achievement, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named Ellis a U.S. Professor of the Year in 2007.

Ellis, 47, starts preparing his classes by studying the latest research on how students learn. Any time he has applied the research, it has always worked, he notes. Then he builds on it with inventive teaching techniques — “goofy” things, as one student put it — to grab a class’s attention.

He discarded many of the traditional teaching methods he experienced as an engineering major — cold-calling on students or designing tests so tough the average score would hover around 40 percent. In their place, he adopted a supportive coaching style, giving students more time to answer questions and to discover concepts on their own. The approach became less about “me and my teaching,” he says, and more about “my students and their learning.”

In place of lectures, which Ellis finds too “cheap and easy,” he will, for instance, have his students collaborate on an educational video. Or he’ll show up for a continuum mechanics class dressed as a mountain climber, hook a rope to the ceiling and get a student volunteer to join him on the table for a mock ascent.

To help students gain a deeper understanding of such fundamental math and physics concepts as velocity and derivatives, Ellis tries a whole-body approach. Students pair off to create graphs by moving back and forth in front of sensors hooked up to laptops. The class learns that different movements alter the graphs. In one session, it was clear that student Anna Lorenz understood the concept when, giggling, she tried a smooth moonwalk to create a straight line.

In place of lectures, Glenn Ellis might engage his class in making an educational video.

Ellis, a Princeton Ph.D. who came to Smith after teaching at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Clarkson University, the U.S. Air Force Academy and two prep schools, no longer gets the kind of student evaluations that engineering professors see too often, describing classes as “scary,” meaning intimidating. And all but a handful of engineering majors have gone on to graduate school or to jobs in engineering-related fields.

“Every day they attend his classes, students learn the material, even when they are mentally ‘not there’ because of working late into the night on difficult homework,” former student Linda Sorto said when Ellis received the Carnegie award.

“He’s really good at mixing up the learning styles,” says recent graduate Briana Tomboulian. “You’re going to get up and move around. You’re going to have visual learning. He can explain things in a bunch of different ways.”

Tomboulian, who’s now working for an engineering consulting firm, also appreciated the way Ellis would start class with “a concept map of where you are now, where you’re going to go.”

Fellow engineering professor Borjana Mikic can see Ellis’s influence in the way his students behave in her classes. They insist on getting clear explanations, she says: “They’ll say, ‘I’m uncomfortable moving on with this, because Professor Ellis always says you have to really own your equation — I’m not owning this.’ ”

Ellis’s style of teaching may be fun, but it’s not easy — or spontaneous. The motion-sensor workshop, for instance, drew upon years of research and discussion with several colleagues to devise activities that give students a deeper understanding of concepts and more control over their own learning.

Ellis hopes his teaching methods will be adopted more broadly. Meanwhile, he’s also got a hand in improving K-12 education. One project: novels for middle-school girls with an engineering plot.


Stacy Teicher Khadaroo is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, where parts of this article first appeared.




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