A philosophy of teaching

Learning, at base, is the process by which one erects the mental, practical, and social structures necessary for the thinking through of new thoughts. So readily does this process lend itself to variety – it can be seen equally in the furrowed brow in the library and the shared laugh at the benchtop – that a philosophy is indeed necessary to chart our way through its terrain. From this variety, many effective learning patterns emerge that share features necessary for success – an honest search for the truth, an open dialogue amongst those honestly searching, an integration of differing opinions – and collectively suggest a bearing for my own philosophy of teaching, best triangulated by three aspects:

    1. a strong understanding of fundamentals;
    2. the creative synthesis of these fundamentals to solve problems; and
    3. an appreciation of the broader context in which these solutions are situated.

This approach to education ensures confidence, creativity, and compassion, three qualities I wish to see in every engineer. Moreover, this approach is uniquely suited to specifically prepare biomedical engineering students to understand the breadth, depth, and rapid pace of innovation inherent in their chosen field. I see myself as a Lecturer at the University of Michigan as primarily responsible for equipping my students with the skills they need to shape the world they inhabit. I see the position itself as something more. I see it as a platform on which to advocate for science and engineering, as a means of inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. And in this brief statement, I hope to convince you that the implementation of this philosophy would greatly benefit the students, the department, and the public at large.

The first pillar of my philosophy is ensuring the fundamentals of the subject are understood. They reliably serve as Ariadne’s threads through the multifaceted, multidisciplinary maze of advanced subject matter, allowing students to understand where they are and where they are trying to go. And as everyone’s learning trajectory is different, I as an instructor must be prepared to assess someone’s level of comprehension from a variety of sources and formulate a learning strategy based thereon. For example, while I was helping teach a senior level bioinstrumentation course (BIOMEDE 458: Bioinstrumentation), I would often employ a technique using Socratic questioning to guide students through the fog of electronics debugging by asking them to describe the problem (allowing me to determine their level of knowledge and comfort with it) and then following with a dialogue in which this new problem can be seen as an extension or variation of basic principles. In this way, foundational knowledge can be continually reinforced and new knowledge systematically integrated. Many students found such an approach both challenging and invigorating (the sort of environment I hope to foster), with one saying of my approach in their end-of-semester evaluation, “he challenges us and I have learned so much because of it.”

Once the fundamentals are grasped, they must be unified. This leads to my second philosophical pillar: encouraging students to seek creative modes of synthesizing the fundamentals they have learned. This approach finds ready applicability in team-based environments, such as design programs and laboratory modules, where students can be tasked with developing an actual, novel, physical prototype of an idea that they collectively produce and execute. I have seen how effective such an approach can be at facilitating deep learning via synthesis, when I was the Graduate Student Instructor for a year-long, graduate-level design course (BIOMEDE 599: Graduate Innovative Design). Here a group of thirty students was broken up into six teams of five students each. The teams had to identify a current problem in the field of biomedical engineering after hearing from expert clinicians across several fields (cardiology, emergency medicine, neurosurgery) and, as a group over the course of a semester, formulate a solution based on their collective understanding of the problem, of the fundamentals, and of the possibilities. In this environment, my role was to encourage students forward while providing constructive criticism to their burgeoning ideas, or as one student said of my style in their end-of-the-year evaluation, “His enthusiasm and willingness to go above and beyond to help us all is truly amazing, and has shaped this experience heavily. He expects us to achieve, and drives us forward with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”

For the third pillar, in the university environment, and especially in the University of Michigan’s environment, we are in the fortunate position to explore the larger context in which we as biomedical engineers find ourselves and our sciences. Incorporating that context into the class’s learning environments (for instance, by posing an ethical dilemma, a legal dispute, a regulatory concern, and other open-ended “what if” scenarios) can keep the passions of students aflame, engage their interests, and provide another mechanism by which to erect the mental, practical, and social structures intrinsic to learning. By introducing the larger context (in a sense, by letting the “real world” into the ivory tower), students can see for themselves the relevance and the realities of their discipline to achieve that beautiful split-brain of the engineer: simultaneously figuring out how something works and thinking of better ways to do it. In so doing, we can make truly philosophical engineers – those with a sense of the way things ought to be and the ingenuity to make it happen.

As one of these philosophical engineers, I too have a sense of what I would like to achieve if offered the opportunity to serve as a Lecturer. The first would be to introduce the above philosophy into the classes I teach (including courses such as ENGIN 100, BIOMEDE 211, 458). The second would be to engage in lay public outreach, including public writing (which has previously included columnist stints at both the Nevada Sagebrush and the Michigan Daily popularizing areas of science and engineering), public speaking (including speaking three years consecutively at the University of Michigan’s Anatomical Donors Memorial service), and video development (having previously been awarded an Honorable Mention by the National Academy of Engineering for my work in this regard). Next, I would like to expand that public engagement to K-12 outreach as it achieves several desirable ends. It is another great way to engage the public as usually the parents and guardians of the students being taught learn a great deal themselves. What’s more, it is an excellent means by which to hone one’s teaching skills, where Einstein’s dictum – if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough – is tested by the ravenously curious and blissfully naïve minds of youth. And, more to the point, that’s where the next generation of scientists and engineers are. We must not wait to inspire them.

And this is just the start of it. I want to make good engineers and then make them better. I want to encourage the next generation to look to their horizon in a spirit of intellectual comradery and to seize it with confidence, with creativity, and with compassion. As, ultimately, theirs will be the hands shaping the future.