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Engineering Prof Wins National Teaching Award

Glenn Ellis, In His Own Words...

Video taken for Smith Sherrerd Award ceremony, April 2006

Press release from CASE

Speech delivered at CASE award ceremony

Picker Engineering Program

For Glenn W. Ellis, associate professor of engineering, teaching students in the Picker Engineering Program and conducting his research in engineering go hand in hand.

They are symbiotic components of a larger objective that combines technology and the humanities, science with the liberal arts, to provide tomorrow’s engineers with insight and flexibility that extends well beyond rote equations and algorithms.

Indeed, Ellis’ research, on engineering education, primarily explores the best ways to impart the concepts and principles of engineering to engender deep, contextual understanding of not only the mechanics of our built environment, but also of the ethics, philosophies and history surrounding what we humans create.

Perhaps it’s logical, given his committed interest in the most effective methods of pedagogy, that he has been honored with a Professor of the Year Award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE)—the only national award for excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

Ellis was presented with the award at a ceremony today, Thursday, Nov. 15, in Washington, D.C. The award includes a $5,000 gift as well as an award certificate, and covers expenses for Ellis, a guest and a student to attend the recipients’ presentation.

The U.S. Professor of the Year program annually salutes a select few of the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country—those who positively influence the lives and careers of students.

Ellis, who has become a national leader in engineering education, was also honored in April 2006 with Smith College’s Kathleen Compton Sherrerd ’54 and John J. F. Sherrerd Prize for Distinguished Teaching. And he received awards for teaching at Clarkson University, where he previously taught.

Ellis views the honor of the U.S. Professor of the Year Award as a validation of the Picker program’s broad approach to engineering education.

“This is a really great chance for the world to see our program,” he says. “It’s exciting. I see it really as an honor for the college and for the Picker program.”

In his acceptance speech, Ellis emphasized the necessity of shifting education toward a newer, more informed model. “It is just not good enough to teach the way that we were taught,” he said. “We know that doing so in engineering will surely exclude many of the young people we need to attract.”

Ellis teaches a course titled Teaching Science and Engineering (secondary school) in the Department of Education and Child Study and has worked extensively with that department to create more effective models for his own teaching.

“We’re very interested in our students developing deep understanding,” he says of the Picker program faculty. “We want our students to take control of their own learning, we want them to be able to define and monitor what they are learning. At Smith, they get flexibility, which is necessary to handle and solve real-world problems. They gain the ability to adapt to changing technologies and new information.”

That approach to teaching is a marked contrast to the traditional approaches for teaching engineering, he says. “As a student, I didn’t know what it meant to learn engineering,” he recalls. “It was a lot of memorization, learning algorithms. When you finished, you never saw the big picture.”

Since joining the Smith faculty in 2001, the founding year of the pioneering Picker program, Ellis has focused on improving and adapting his teaching to incorporate the research on how people learn, he says.

“At Smith, the standards for teaching are high,” he says. “My big change in coming to Smith is learning how to be a scholar of teaching.”

Part of his scholarship includes combining his instruction and his research so that they complement each other in the interest, always, of producing more effective teaching.

“At Smith, unlike at many other institutions, the two worlds go together—research and teaching,” he notes. “It’s a perfect model for me. I’m very happy here.”

11/15/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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