When I began teaching my first university level class after finishing my PhD, I had to come to grips with an unfortunate reality. That is, as a professor in the feared field of control, many students simply wanted to survive with a passing grade. In previous endeavors, my goal as the teacher and student were always closely aligned. I had been an educator for years, tutoring in high school, leading group tutor sessions in undergraduate school, as a teaching assistant in graduate school, and as a sailing instructor. The students came in simply wanting to learn, making my job was somewhat narrow in that I only needed to provide clear, helpful explanations and encouragement.
I fully recognize, it is not a student’s fault for lacking passion in a subject. The base material for most classes is, frankly, not very engaging. To be an effective educator, I strive to inspire and to lead the students through with passion. As a professor, I try to use all the available tools to do this; lecture, lab, projects, discussion, homework and tests. Lecture is used to give a framework for the class, to introduce concepts, provide context for them, and to reinforce them. Labs, projects and homework offer the necessary practice for students to hone their skills. And tests are the typically the requisite piece for individual accountability.
The fact is, if all students do is go to lecture, they retain very little skill. However, if I’ve done my job, they come away with a full understanding of the context of the course in engineering and the world around them. Thus my lectures are structured without an emphasis directly on theory. They are broken up, so that they can fulfill other important functions. The lecture is the platform to ground the students with a clear understanding of what we’ve doing, what we’ve done, and where we are going. It is the ideal forum to provide context to the material, through real world examples connecting concepts to other things the students learn. I try to break up detailed lectures on formula, with discussions on the real world and applications. Even if most students do not engage, it is typically a welcome change of pace. It is also typically how the students first get to know me, so I try to be approachable and positive and kind, so that they might be more likely to seek help when they need it, or before. As I am already passionate about modeling and mathematics, it is not hard for me to infuse the most theoretic class with geeky excitement. For example, I still get giddy thinking about Nyquist diagrams. And lastly, the lecture is used to review previous concepts. (Talking about the bigger picture!)
Homework, labs and projects, are the essential domain in which students practice the skills they are learning. Typically, I formulate problems in a way that forces students to have mastery of first principles, and build from there. In fact, I have found it helpful to have a quiz in the first couple weeks covering the necessary first principles. I feel like this really helps all the students keep up, and recognize early if they might need a little extra help. With the first principles mastered early, students find some essential controls problems much easier. It’s also important that homework be given often and feedback be given quickly. If this is done right students feel accomplishment in mastering material. Though homework is offered throughout the class, I find that labwork to be the most instrumental in learning.
The lab forces students to use the concepts first hand, and offers the best chance at a memorable experience to refer to in the future. This also gives students the confidence that this material really does work! The first class I taught was an upper division controls class. I was given the freedom to create my own lab section with available torsional springs. It’s hard not to appreciate the value of integral control as you push your hardest on what was a compliant spring, and the thing won’t budge!
I understand that many students can be overwhelmed in a testing setting, so I rarely weight tests more than 50%. I try to craft tests that encourage critical thinking, using first concepts approaches to problems. I also try to include some problems that at first seem daunting, but are guided step by step, so as the student arrives at the answer they feel hopefully feel some gratifying accomplishment.
I’m also constantly looking for innovative ways to get the students to practice. For instance, I find the tools of MOOCs, when well designed, can be very powerful. Additionally, the best way to learn is to teach, so I do encourage part of discussion time to have students broken into groups to work through a problem. All of these aspects come together to form a course that should empower and equip my students with not only theory, but practical tools and knowledge.