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Philosophy of Teaching
Mahesh Iyer
Graduate Teaching Associate
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Winner of the 2005 Graduate Associate Teaching Award

“Teaching” ranks amongst the nation’s top five prestigious professions where one is involved in shaping the future of the country. My first academic teaching experience began in my third grade math classroom when my teacher selected a few top scorers in that class to tutor the weaker students on a one-on-one basis. My extrovert nature and zeal towards helping my classmates and other tutoring activities through my academic career has slowly developed the “teacher” in me. I firmly believe that the best way to learn is to teach and one continues to learn all through one’s life. In addition to faculty input, and discussions with peers, my students’ responses are the best source for improving my teaching techniques which are evolving on a continuous basis.

Understanding how people learn is one of the significant aspects of teaching. This is linked to their “knowledge” background and maturity. It was an interesting experience when I was trying to explain my scientific research (related to global warming and hydrogen economy) to my engineering peers, research scientists from industry, my 70 year old landlord (a high school graduate) and my 5th grade cousin. The key is to relate to the audience by starting from what they know and building upon it. Providing real life everyday examples makes it very easy. Specifically, I relate “cooking vessel” to a batch reactor where you add the ingredients and the product is formed at high temperature. “Decaffeinated coffee” is an example of novel product design which satisfies the “coffee” loving consumers but prevents the harmful effects of caffeine. Thus, I tell my students that their future role is changing from that of creating new processes to make an existing product (regular coffee) to that of synthesizing newer, less toxic and safer products (e.g. decaf). I try to understand my student’s knowledge level by conducting surveys, through in-class discussions and one-on-one interactions.

Chemical engineering is an applied field where students constantly apply the fundamental concepts and theory learned in the classroom, including other disciplines. My main goal is to encourage independent thinking and analytical reasoning to augment their problem solving skills, thus encouraging them to not just memorize. I prompt them to question at every stage: “why?” and satisfy their curiosity, instead of assuming the instructor is always right. My favorite approach was: “If you don’t have any question I have some for you”. This prompts classroom discussions which are very useful and led to several intellectually stimulating questions/arguments which are not easy to answer. The idea is to provide hints and “baby steps”, building on what they know, and lead them to the answer by making them think logically. The confidence they had gained from this exercise was revealed when they tackled the “question and answers” after their group presentations!

Chemical engineering also involves a significant amount of teamwork. Several industries where students find employment emphasize the need for a “team player with good interpersonal skills”. For this purpose, I strongly advocate design projects involving student groups, which provide students with vital opportunities to effectively work as a team. These projects are useful learning tools where the students assimilate and implement all the concepts they have learned in the classroom to bring the project to fruition, write a report and make a presentation. However, on many occasions, I have seen the student groups allowed to work “independently” as a team without significant supervision. This defeats the basic purpose of initiating group work. The students need mentoring not only in the technical aspects of the project but also in group interaction and effective teamwork. While the team work and interpersonal skills are acquired through experience, the teacher plays a crucial role in identifying their position in a dynamic group. A teacher should discuss various teamwork-related problems they might encounter and guide them through the process. I try to achieve this by spending significant time with each group. Besides, I also mentor individual students, keeping advice within the realm of the group.

A teacher should be totally involved with the class, dedicated to his/her students and be prepared to devote time and energy for them. Love for teaching evokes passion and dedication. The enthusiasm of a motivated teacher rubs off on his/her students, who derive the inspiration and encouragement which actuate their desire to learn. This keeps the students interested and they tend to retain the course material very well. Every module should clearly state a take home message for the students. I know through experience that whenever my past students approach me for help for another course, I am pleased to realize during the discussions that they have retained most of the important concepts.

In addition, a good teacher needs to personalize the needs and problems of the students. This is observed in case of a few of the weaker, shy or some international students who need additional help and but hesitate to ask for it. In my opinion, identifying the students by their full names and knowing some background information (like state, city, and country) is very beneficial. I obtain most of this information subtly through my numerous interactions with them during my office hours. Having good sense of humor is an added advantage. I believe that the best in a person comes out in a non stressful situation. Students tend to learn more effectively from an approachable teacher who sets up a comfortable atmosphere conducive to learning. Thus, the education goes beyond the classroom and students tend to visualize the teacher as a role model from whom they seek universal advice on topics ranging from fundamental concepts to future careers options, other personal problems and recommendations. Eventually some of the past students evolve into useful professional and industrial contacts who stay in touch long after they have graduated.

A good teacher should have sound fundamentals and command over the concepts as well as a broad knowledge beyond the realms of the particular course being taught. Thus, he/she can provide useful inter-disciplinary examples which make learning very interesting and motivates the students. Good course material with sufficient problems/examples and case studies is very effective. While advance preparation is essential, I believe that there should be enough room for flexibility and I tend to adapt to the requirements as the course proceeds. This was especially true in case of open-ended design projects where the material was modified appropriately depending on the group’s performance.

Technology is very useful and should be utilized effectively. I feel that “seeing is believing” and so audio-visual aids like using power point slides for lectures, providing hand outs, showing video clips to emphasize important points, and using WebCT are effective learning tools with proven impacts. In addition, I encourage the use of state-of-the art softwares to stay in tune with the needs of the chemical/process industry. On one occasion, my students found it difficult to learn complex (and expensive) process simulation software and it was impossible to have 53 computers in the classroom with appropriate licenses. So I had to innovatively prepare “power-point” slides which imitate the software. They found this very useful and were able to use them effectively to learn the software. In future I plan to incorporate in-class problem solving worksheets during recitations. In addition, I would like to organize plant trips to specific chemical/process/utility industries so that the students see “in live action” what they have read and retain it effectively.

My students, peers and faculty describe me as dedicated, enthusiastic, approachable, resourceful, organized, innovative and knowledgeable with a keen attitude towards helping students. Finally, I believe that the role of a teacher is that of a leader where you have to show the path, motivate, encourage, and lead by example. Perspiration follows inspiration which means this task is going to involve hard work, and dedication. However, the rewards are immense as I enjoy this activity. My success lies in seeing my students succeed and I experience it when I see my students move on to industry or graduate school. Recently, my ChBE H783 Undergraduate Honors Research student won the “Outstanding Undergraduate Award for Research Excellence” conferred by the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. This gives me an immense sense of accomplishment and motivates me to continue my teaching.

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