Teaching Philosophy Statement
My primary goal as a teacher and mentor is to provide a motivating and supportive environment for my students, where they develop strong interest for the subject matter and learn to think critically and independently. When students leave my class, I want them to possess strong fundamental knowledge and also a sound intuition for the subject matter. This fundamentals-to-intuition approach defines my teaching style and is the basis of my classroom teaching, assignments, and testing. For example, in my ‘Robot Mechanism Design’ class students learn the fundamentals of kinematics through rigorous mathematical lectures and exercises. Simultaneously, I strive to build an intuition for these mathematical concepts by citing and discussing the details of real-world examples, which allows the students to imagine applications of the studied concepts to solve engineering problems. The students then combine fundamentals and intuition through a hands-on project where the goal is to build and test robots for real-world applications.
I believe that even highly motivated and experienced teachers need to regularly review and revise their methods. I have developed my teaching practices the same way that I approach my research: by being creative and innovative without a fear of failure, but at the same time honestly reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. For example, the first time I taught my ‘Programming and Numerical Methods’ class, I was faced with the challenge that the students seemed uninterested in the material. My attempts to engage with them were not working and I quickly realized that the real problem was rooted in the social pressures of a large class—the students were too intimidated to speak up. To address this issue, I began offering mini-quizzes every week in which the students are asked to solve a small problem right after a concept is taught. The students are encouraged to collaborate and also to seek help from me during the quiz. Since the quizzes are graded generously, I have found that this creates a low-stress environment where the students are discussing with their peers and are productively employing their natural inquisitive instincts. Added advantages of this method include an almost perfect attendance and a feedback mechanism for me to gauge students’ understanding of the concepts.
Instilling confidence in all students is another essential responsibility for a teacher. Too often there is a tendency to cater to the brightest or the most vocal students, while quieter students remain uninvolved. Studies show that women exhibit a decline in self-confidence during their college years, especially in their mathematical abilities. Such findings stress the importance of being mindful of these issues in the classroom and also of avoiding falling for stereotypes, especially in traditionally male dominated fields, such as engineering.
While classroom teaching is the most important aspect of my teaching responsibility, research mentoring and community outreach are also critical facets of my teaching role. My goal for all facets of teaching is the same: create an environment where the students are confident in their fundamental skills and are also encouraged to be creative and imaginative. I also believe that a teacher’s role transcends classroom duties. Good teachers and research mentors are on duty at all times, teaching the values of integrity and impartiality most effectively by his or her own conduct. As Emerson wrote, “To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition... This is to have succeeded.” As teachers, we have an opportunity to achieve this in every student.
Since joining the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Fall of 2011, I have been successful in transforming a number of my ideas into successful teaching innovations.
I have taught a core undergraduate-level class in the ME department titled “ME 218: Engineering Computational Methods” which teaches numerical methods and implementation with MATLAB and C/C++ programming. I have developed new course material to improve this class, specifically by using examples and case studies from robotics to engage students and increase their excitement about the implementation of numerical methods. Our department has gone through a curriculum overhaul and I have led the efforts to upgrade our coursework in the area of computation. After much deliberation, we have chosen MATLAB as our medium for teaching computing and we have combined a programming course (ME 205) and numerical methods course (ME 218) to create a new course (ME 318M). Through the course development, I tackled the challenge of teaching core concepts of structured programming within the MATLAB environment and numerical methods in such a way that students feel empowered to use these concepts in their careers here at UT and beyond. I developed new custom in-class teaching materials and lab manuals to engage students from the various levels of computing background that we see at UT. And I am using a number of real-life examples to convince students that computing is critical for today’s engineers and that mastery of these skills will set them apart from other engineers. I am also leading the efforts to increase the use of computing in subsequent ME classes by developing teaching modules for other faculty members.
I have developed a new class titled “ME 379M/397: Robot Mechanism Design” in which I teach students to translate theoretical knowledge from kinematics and controls into the design and building of an autonomous robot. The class is cross-listed as an undergraduate elective and a graduate-level class, and students from a number of engineering fields enroll in this class. The class follows the fundamentals-to-intuition approach and focuses on project-based learning. Given the interdisciplinary nature of robotics fields, the students are exposed to wide-ranging topics including design, mechatronics, controls, programming, and biomechanics. Students design and build complete robotic systems as part of their projects, and over the last five iterations students have successfully built prototypes for prosthetic devices, rehabilitation robots, and walking machines.
One innovative method that I have employed is inviting ‘clients’ into my classroom for the projects. This has sparked student interest since they see an immediate, real-world application of the concepts taught in the classroom. For example, I invited subjects with a Spinal Cord Injury to speak with the students about their desire for a robotic device and this resulted in a ‘Rope Gripping Robot’ for sailing (Figure 1a). Another example is a robotic device to assist in walking, which has since matured into a full-fledged research project (Figure 1b & c).
Currently, I am advising eight PhD students, three MS student, and eight undergraduate students on a number of projects in the areas of robotic rehabilitation, prosthetics, and biomechanics. We are designing a number of innovative robotic systems and this requires working effectively in teams. As a mentor, I see my role as a thought leader, motivator, and some times as a manager. I help students translate complex research problems into concrete tasks and manage students from a variety of backgrounds in interdisciplinary projects. At the same time I strive to foster independent thinking and creativity in my students, and I encourage and support all of my students in the task of presenting their findings at conferences and in journal articles.
I am committed and motivated to carry out outreach activities in order to increase the enrollment of bright young minds, especially from under-represented groups. Robotics is an attractive field for students and I have developed a number of innovative ways to engage local area high school and middle school students. Each summer I host motivated high school students for summer internships in the lab. My lab also volunteers in mentoring middle school and high school robotic teams to prepare for regional and national robotics competitions. I have served as a judge and invited speaker at a number of robotics competitions in Austin. I also serve as a guest lecturer and advisor for the students enrolled in the UTeach program, which prepares high school teachers in the STEM fields. Overall, I believe that these activities are critical for enhancing the diversity in our undergraduate and graduate programs, improving relationships with the public, and advancing general science literacy in our community.