With the guidance of many excellent professors and mentors, I have developed a passion for teaching engineering principles and the inclusion of design thinking in my pedagogical mindset. My teaching style focuses on an intelligible, practical, and inclusive presentation of concepts. Education is the foundation of every engineer’s career, and exceptional instructors are essential to this process. I seek to be one of those exceptional instructors.
*Design thinking*, as I see it, is the ability to translate problems, determine appropriate methods, analyze potential solutions, and make the necessary decisions throughout the entire engineering process. As an educator and mentor, I seek to instill in my students the ability to recognize and apply learned material to their pressing engineering questions. This responsibility is a significant pedagogical challenge but will produce the well-rounded, prepared, and pioneering engineers of the future. These principles can be put into practice by connecting the material from courses to how engineers can address their questions. For example, in a course that teaches transfer functions (e.g., a course covering introductory dynamics or control theory), we can communicate that the linear electrical and mechanical systems can be represented by transfer functions and complex engineering objects inside cellphones and automobiles have been created using these principles. When some modification is made to a part of these systems, “transfer functions” can provide insights into the benefits or issues associated with the change. In addition, I would ask probing questions to students regarding what design decision may be associated with the particular topic of study and how might we investigate new and optimal designs within the course concepts.
Furthermore, I will employ authentic assessments that explicitly require students to apply a course’s principles to engineering design problems, increasing their design thinking savviness. My previous experiences contributing to the development of project-based learning activities provide an excellent foundation to develop new design-focused assessments. Depending on the course, a variety of projects could be proposed, including student-defined projects. Some specific examples could include controller design for a vehicle suspension system in an introductory controls course, bridge synthesis in a statics course, or maximization of the range of a trebuchet in a design optimization course. Meeting requirements and optimizing performance are not the only expected outcomes, but students would also be required to communicate their thought process behind their decisions. Every so often, students are uncomfortable with the fact that most engineering challenges do not have obvious or standardized solutions. A student that completes one of my courses or is an alum from my research group will have both the knowledge and confidence to be successful as a designer in the areas covered. Over the past year, I have been working on a research project with an undergraduate student who was employed in a co-op position at the Air Force Research Laboratory. We were working together on generating new aircraft thermal management systems represented by labeled graphs. Towards the end of our interactions on the project, he thanked me for the new system-level, design-focused perspective that he felt he gained by working on this project. He thought that his courses had been doing a fantastic job at building his understanding of existing aircraft systems but this project provided a unique perspective on how he could potentially build new ones. I would describe this outcome as improved design thinking.
It can be a challenge for both students to learn all the prescribed material and for instructors to assess their comprehension. My favored approach is to assess students using metrics weighted more towards conceptual knowledge rather than strict memorization or computation. Focusing on concept-based learning through both course presentation and examinations will help provide answers to the common questions of why should I learn this material, how do the ideas connect, and how can I apply these concepts as an engineer? Homework and projects will focus on specific topics and demonstrating competence by applying the concepts while exams and other assessments of the students’ performance can be tailored towards assessing fundamental conceptual knowledge. An example of a concept-focused question on an exam might be to compare and contrast the differences between using gradient-based and generic algorithm optimization methods.
The accommodation of various learning styles is another important teaching principle for me. Each student is unique, and may have his or her preferred learning style whether it be visual, logical, social, solitary, or some combination. As an educator, I will seek to accommodate these various learning styles through the development of varied course presentation and activities. While a guest lecture for a GE 598 special topics course on dynamic system design, I utilized the commonly-applied lecture slides but also leveraged the blackboard at specific instances to help explain certain topics. In my lectures, I sought to provide a balance between theory and helpful examples. One topic was the formulation of dynamic optimization problems, and I presented both common optimal control perspective as well as formulations for a number of engineering applications such as wave energy converters, robotics, and vehicle suspensions. A key outcome I sought for students was the ability to implement the methods in code, so after the presentation of the theory, I went through and interactively coded line by line some simple, illustrative examples. In case the presentation of some of the material was too fast during the limited lecture time, I also provided the lecture slides and commented code [(https://github.com/danielrherber/optimal-control-direct-method-examples)] for after class study. If given the opportunity, I would be interested in recording lectures for students to reexamine at their own convenience.
I have had many meaningful and varied teaching experiences over the past several years as a teaching assistant and guest lecturer of four undergraduate and graduate courses. I was honored on the list of teachers ranked as excellent by their students for the spring 2016 semester and received the ISE Service Award for my volunteer work with the department’s freshman introductory course. Additionally, I have led a number of K-12 outreach events utilizing trebuchet kits teaching students of all ages about engineering design through physical and computer experiments. It is particularly rewarding to observe a 1st grader reason through and pick a good angle of launch after a few disappointing tries. Learning to maximize the range with a single variable has never been so much fun! With the trebuchet project, I was involved with some engineering education research [(http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/educsci6010007)], and I am interested in systematically examining how students learn engineering design.
Finally, I have been fortunate to have a number of rewarding experiences mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. Some of the project reports we worked on together are available at [(http://systemdesign.illinois.edu/publications/Niu13a.pdf)] and [(https://ise.illinois.edu/undergraduate/research-experience/reu-projects/enumeration-of-design-architecture.pdf)]. Developing my skills as a mentor has been a focus of mine because I alone will not be enough to build a successful research program. I will devote my efforts to have successful mentor-mentee relationships through strong communication and positivity leading to successfully graduating knowledgeable, design thinking engineers.
* [(https://github.com/danielrherber/optimal-control-direct-method-examples)] GitHub project "optimal-control-direct-method-examples"
* [(http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/educsci6010007)] DR Herber, AP Deshmukh, ME Mitchell, and JT Allison, "Project-based curriculum for teaching analytical design to freshman engineering students via reconfgurable trebuchets," Education Sciences, vol. 6, no. 1, Feb. 2016, doi: 10.3390/educsci6010007
* [(http://systemdesign.illinois.edu/publications/Niu13a.pdf)] X Niu, "Modeling and design analysis of a permanent magnet linear synchronous generator," Technical Report UIUC-ESDL-2013-01, Aug. 2013.
* [(https://ise.illinois.edu/undergraduate/research-experience/reu-projects/enumeration-of-design-architecture.pdf)] S Li, "Enumeration of architectures with structured components," Dec. 2017.