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Professor reflects on 40 years of teaching

Dr. Philip S. Schmidt, Donald J. Douglass Centennial Professor in Engineering and Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Cockrell School of Engineering, discusses his experience motivating students and teaching values.

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Dr. Philip S. Schmidt is the Donald J. Douglass Centennial Professor in Engineering and Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

I have often been asked to express (succinctly!) my “Philosophy of Teaching.” Such a statement would imply a single overarching principle guiding what I do, and I find it not only difficult, but impossible, to distill my views on education into a soundbite. What I know about teaching and learning is largely empirical, i.e., based on my personal experience and feelings, and my approach to the subject is guided mainly by whatever seems to work. Thus, I would simply like to reflect on my 40 years of teaching college students (mainly engineering students), and what I think I’ve learned about learning. I will focus my comments on two main areas: motivating students and teaching values.

Motivating students
Learning isn’t easy…. it takes work, and learning engineering takes a lot of work. Students work when they’re motivated. So how do you motivate them to use their precious time for the hard work of learning? If there is a single fundamental question in teaching, this is it. Here are some of the ways I’ve tried to motivate students.

Teaching values
The subject of values — moral, ethical and social — has received a lot of attention over the years, perhaps never more than now, with the outcry over the multiple crises facing our democratic society. The political powers that control public funding of education are calling for increased emphasis on the teaching of values in curricula at all levels, from elementary through graduate school. The easy answer to these calls is to simply create a few courses on ethical and moral values and require students to take them. Personally, I question the effectiveness of “teaching values” this way, and feel that it may even be counterproductive.

Then, there is what I call the “50th percentile” problem. It is tempting, as teachers, to focus most of our attention on the best of our students, the top 25 percent who sit in the first couple of rows, who get all the homework right without help, and make near-perfect scores on all the exams. Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate another group of students who, while not superstars, are hardworking and really want to do well. They are the ones who come to my office in embarrassment after failing the first exam wanting to know if there’s any way they’ll be able to pass. They generally have gotten off to a slow start, gotten behind the curve and lost their self-confidence. I try to reassure these students that there’s still a long way to go, both in my course and in their lives, and that early failure is not uncommon in our chosen profession.

Because thermodynamics is a “gateway” course to the rest of the ME curriculum, those students who fail to make the required C frequently come to me to ask whether they should even try to continue their engineering studies. For these students, I relate my own true story, that thermodynamics was the first (and only) course I failed in college and had to take over again. I also remind them of my “heroes,” who made great contributions to the field of engineering after overcoming not only failures in the lab but the doubts of their supporters.

In my career at UT, I have attended virtually every commencement exercise for our engineering students. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing the faces and meeting the families of those I’ve been honored to teach as they walk across the platform to receive their diplomas. And of those, the “hook ’em” sign from the 50th percentilers whom I talked out of quitting bring me the greatest pleasure of all.

Read the full article from Dr. Schmidt.