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Glenn Ellis, In His Own Words

On Teaching at Smith

“Smith is a really good place to be and to teach. Every time I have a student who really deserves to go to a conference, there are funds somewhere in this institution to send that student for an enriched learning experience. You wouldn’t think of Smith being a research school, but to me, that’s one of the biggest attractions that we have. If you come here, we have faculty doing some really great research, and they not only teach your classes, you may work with them directly.

“At a major research university, you might see that professor once a year; here, you hang out with them for hours while they help you with things you may not be ready for but can do because of the personal attention and teaching available to you. It’s almost an apprenticeship approach to learning.”

“If I were the parent of a young woman, I would be demanding that my daughter learn in such an environment, which doesn’t seem to exist in many other places. Here, the majority of the faculty [members] really care about the students and how they are learning. It’s very different from the convoluted world of huge grants and intense competition for a shrinking pool of funds needed to sustain a program. That produces a very different sort of faculty and the undergraduates are the last people being considered.

“Teaching undergraduates is fun. And what’s really good for me is that I get to do this for a living!”

On Engaging Smith Students in Research

“In all my research, my students take the lead. In every paper I’ve written since I’ve been at Smith, there are undergraduate co-authors. While it would be simpler for me to write the paper, the learning experience for the students is very valuable and necessary. Typically, they write the first draft and I review it, and then we work together for a month or two doing numerous rewrites. They are not ready yet to write for a professional audience, but in the process of editing and being constantly challenged, they learn a lot. It’s a hard way of getting there, but they don’t forget what they learned.

“In about a third of my research papers, students give the presentation at a conference. Time and time again, they are the only undergraduates at a conference, and Smith has been very supportive of those special opportunities for the students.

“I had a student go to the National Science Foundation with me and help give a workshop, and then she joined the panel at NSF. That would be a daunting experience for most undergraduates, but the nice thing about Smith is, they think this is normal.”

On Interesting Girls in Engineering

“The whole idea of the Picker Engineering Program is to change the role of women in engineering, but that doesn’t start at the graduate level—it begins with children. That’s why one of my research areas is how we present the role of engineers and engineering effectively to younger students, how we make this field appealing and accessible to girls as well as boys.

“I think we interest younger students, especially girls, when we see engineering not just as solving technical problems but as responding to some of the questions that have intrigued and challenged humans for centuries.”

“Engineers solve problems best when they are fully aware of all the complications that surround a problem and all the potential impacts of hundreds of design, technical, and ethical decisions they must make along the way to a solution…

“For one grant, we are writing a fiction book about characters in middle school and the things they encounter. It is full of engineering challenges and activities to go with them. The book is called “Talk to Me.” Two students are a creative team. One an engineering student and the other an English major and an engineering minor. We brainstorm together about how to make activities come to life for kids in the middle school age group. One student is a writer, the other sees more of the engineering, and she also can capture the visual elements of the activities as a first-level illustration. They also work with a professional writer of children’s books, so they are learning how a book really comes together. One student has been working on this project for a couple of years and basically has become the project coordinator, taking the lead to ensure that all the people and elements come together…

“We hope this book is the first of a series that will lead students and teachers through activities to a Web site where we want to create a community of learners informing and supporting one another. Unlike a commercial site that pushes people to the Web to buy products, we want a site that gets people to share things, how they did the activities, what they saw, thought, and learned.”

On Smith Students as Mentors

“Each year, we do workshops with teachers, and students help with organizing and do some teaching. There is nothing tougher than teaching teachers, who all know why they are there—they are very demanding. The students are living this material, so they are very effective.

“We always get requests for students to come to the schools because they are such good role models.”

“I want to get more and more of our students working as mentors in schools, which would be a better use of their skills than some of the campus jobs they have to take because they need to earn some money. All our research with teachers puts mentors at the very top of any list of what’s needed for them to become more effective. We already do a lot of outreach, but I want to take that one step further and match students with youngsters who can really benefit from that relationship.”

On Teaching Engineering

“Half of my research deals with how best to educate undergraduate engineers, and that is more in the cognitive science realm. In particular, we’re looking at how students choose and learn content, how we deal with preconceptions and misconceptions, how we help students organize their knowledge in the most productive way—essentially, how we frame their learning…

“The more they know about how learning actually takes place, the better they can manage their own learning in any situation and the more reflective, efficient learners they will become. We know that there are many different learning styles, and we know how limited the traditional reliance on reading and reporting out can be, especially for those who learn by more visual and tactile methods.

“We really know a lot about how people learn, but a lot of places don’t apply that knowledge to engineering. At Smith, we are actually applying to engineering education what the research tells us about learning and facilitating learning.”

11/15/07  Compiled by Carole Fuller
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