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Glenn Ellis, U.S. Professor of the Year

Acceptance Speech delivered Nov. 15, Washington, D.C.

When I was in college, I recall speaking to my advisor, Professor Fang—a good man and mentor to me—about my interest in becoming a professor.  He told me that I had potential in research, but he had grave concerns about my prospects for becoming a good teacher.  So I would like to thank the Carnegie Foundation for The Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education both for granting me this wonderful honor and also for perhaps easing Professor Fang’s mind a bit.  I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to participate in this celebration of teaching and learning.

Given that engineers literally shape our surroundings and the way we live our lives, it is critical that all members of our society are represented in the profession.  To quote Dr. Wulf from the National Academy of Engineering, If all are not involved in creating engineering solutions, needs are unstated and, therefore, unmet…This has gone beyond an equity issue.”  I am pleased that I am being honored today not so much as an individual, but more for what I have been able to accomplish as a member of a team creating the first engineering program at a women’s college—an endeavor that has been highly successful by a variety of measures. I have been privileged to work with a community of faculty and students that is attempting to change the way engineers are educated—and, beyond that, the nature of the profession itself, its relationship to the liberal arts, and the role of women in it. For us this means changing what we teach—by emphasizing the interaction of engineering with society and its role in serving humanity and sustaining our planet.  It also means changing how we teach—by empowering the learner, and by making the climate welcoming and supportive for all students.  Because nationally only about one in five engineering students is a woman, this also means reaching out with our vision to girls much younger than college age.              

Receiving an honor such as this inevitably leads one to reflect—an activity for which I wish there was more time in education and in our lives in general. As I reflect upon teaching and education, the point that is most clear to me is the importance of respecting our students.  They often surprise and sometimes amaze us when given a chance, particularly when we attend to their needs as learners. While we do owe it to them to be scholars in our own subject areas, it is to me a contradiction to value our own scholarship and at the same time disregard the research on learning. It is just not good enough to teach the way that we were taught. We know that doing so in engineering will surely exclude many of the young people we need to attract. 

For me a transformative moment came about ten years ago when I taught an electrical circuits lab.   Each year on the first day of the lab the room would fill with the smell of fried resistors and blown fuses.  To prevent this I added a perfectly crafted pre-lab lecture and demonstration on how to build a circuit.  Students regularly nodded their heads, indicating their understanding, and then went to the lab tables where they promptly filled the room with the smell of fried resistors and blown fuses.  What I said and what they learned were only loosely connected.  A lecture was the wrong pedagogical tool—as if I had used a hammer when my task was to cut a piece of wood!  Maybe frying resistors and blowing fuses is a valuable part of the learning process and my job is to understand and manage the experience and maximize the learning that results?

I have many people to thank.  Provost Borque and President Christ, you have not only supported me directly, you have also instilled Smith with ideals that make me proud to be on the faculty.  To my friends at the Ford Motor Company, thank you for all of your generous support.  To my colleagues on the engineering faculty, I am always learning from each of you and I am touched by your friendship every day. In particular, thank you Dr. Jones, for sharing this special day with me.  I also want to thank my friends and collaborators at Smith and elsewhere—particularly Dr. Rudnitsky, Dr. Scordilis and Dr. Turner.  To the students at Smith, I can imagine no better way to live my life than to work and learn with you.  We have fun together and I rejoice in your successes.  In particular, thank you Linda for your kind remarks today.  Finally, I would like to thank my family. To my parents, you have raised me with love and sacrifice and have been my most important teachers.  To my wife, Sonia, and to my sons, Andrew and Jamie—you bring happiness and meaning to my life each day. 

Teaching Statement

I remember my straightforward focus when I began teaching was to deliver clear, informative and-I hoped-interesting lectures about engineering. It never occurred to me that I might have a hand in shaping the nature of how engineering is taught. But gradually my focus shifted. I became an ardent scholar of learning and along the way came to believe that better teaching could actually guide students to create a better world.

Prompted by globalization and rapid changes in technology, today's engineering leaders are calling for major change in how engineering is taught. They also want to boost women's persistently low numbers (representing just 9 percent) in the engineering field.

I joined Smith College, a women's college, because I had the opportunity to help create from the ground up the first engineering program specifically designed for women. This revamping is an enormous undertaking, one that redefines both what is taught and how it is taught. Since it took hold at Smith, three consecutive classes have produced retention rates far exceeding the national average. Our program has received accreditation and has been nationally recognized as a model of engineering education reform.

My biggest challenge was to design instruction based on research about how people learn, and then implement it systematically throughout the curriculum. I've led teaching workshops and developed tools such as engineering concept maps. An example is using the concept of a horse and rider to illustrate key concepts of continuum mechanics such as loading and stress distribution. Scaling up these approaches to a program-wide and national level may have the greatest impact on the profession.

However, what inspires me on a daily basis are the personal relationships I develop with my students as we learn together. My classroom approach is to engage by focusing on each learner's need. I use concept questions, hands-on discovery learning, group problem-solving, investigative case studies and project-based learning. Peer teaching, self-reflective narratives, and student-directed projects are some of the metacognitive approaches I use to help students take control of their own learning.

I also strive to integrate engineering with the liberal arts. My goal is to replace engineering training with a more holistic experience that inspires meaningful learning, reflection, personal growth and enlightenment.  For example, I teach the concept of artificial intelligence within a philosophy of the mind conceptual framework. Students thereby think more broadly about AI and the nature of their own existence. In continuum mechanics, students work on project teams to produce their own educational videos.

Reforming undergraduate engineering education is only part of the story. It is well known that to really impact the profession we must reach younger ages. I have begun working with K-12 teachers using a program that shows how engineering serves people and can support a sustainable future. I am also co-leading a project to write novels for middle-school girls that integrate stories with engineering activities.

The fundamental ideas of teaching and learning also support better community, relationships, dialogue--the things that bring the most joy to the classroom. We can see that the ideas are working in rising retention rates and consistently positive student feedback. But there is another more personal measure: the e-mails I receive from alumni years later, still seeking advice and connection. There is also the shared delight over classroom jokes and discoveries, and-music that will ring for a long time-the sound of a dozen students lined up at my office door, singing a song about engineering they composed just for me.


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