Autar Kaw - Acceptance Speech

2012 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Autar Kaw
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
University of South Florida

Thank you, Dan, for that kind introduction. I share this award with all the students who took a small part of their own journey with me. Without a doubt, they have collectively taught me more than I have taught them. And there have been students, which include Dan, who have individually taught me—not through precept but by example—about seeking grace, keeping poise, facing adversity and, not the least, when not to open my mouth.

Thank you to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for this honor and for the recognition of the importance of undergraduate education. Thanks to TIAA-CREF for sponsoring today's luncheon and Phi Beta Kappa for sponsoring tonight's reception.

When I started teaching a course in numerical methods in 1988, students would ask me questions that could not be answered on the spot as they involved lengthy calculations. Most times, I would write short computer programs to find answers to their questions. This led me to thinking that I should write simulation programs for a course in numerical methods, and since my fellow instructors in other universities must be asked similar questions, why not send these programs to them on a bunch of 1.44MB disks?

Between seeking tenure and raising a family, this project was turning out to be a joyous but time-consuming affair. I wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation so that I could buy some time and assistance. The proposal received excellent reviews but was not funded as the emphasis in those days was more on funding hardware-based educational laboratories. Fast-forward 10 years to 2000: the Internet had since revolutionized information-access and MIT had announced its open courseware initiative. We rewrote the proposal in this renewed context but again it was not funded. Not to be discouraged, we rewrote it in 2001, and we have not looked back since.

Along the way, colleagues and students at many institutions, including Arizona State University, Mississippi Valley State University and Milwaukee School of Engineering, joined the effort. The courseware we have developed, assessed and revised in the last 11 years gets a million page views annually, and we will be getting a million views for the YouTube videos this year. To be able to reach students all over the world is heartening; to be able to clarify a concept that a student did not get in the confines of a large classroom is encouraging; and to learn that it prevented a student from dropping the class is satisfying.

Many similar exciting things are happening in higher education today. With massive open online courses (called MOOCs), open coursewares (called OCWs) and social media, we now have even more informal and formal ways of educating on several scales. While some may think these resources will mean the end of the physical classroom or dismiss them for not being equivalent, I look at these resources as a way to complement the physical classroom.

MOOCs and OCWs are challenging all of us to "up our game" a notch and take undergraduate education even more seriously. This is already taking shape in bolstering our students' individualized experiences through internships, co-op, study abroad, research experiences and independent study. 

The changes in modes of course delivery are also meeting the needs of our ever-changing student demographics. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that two out of three students are working, and half of those who work do so full-time. More than two out of five students are attending community colleges while one out of four is over the age of 30. At the same time, only one out of 25 students at our top 146 selective universities hails from the lowest income quartile.

Knowing this, we still use archaic metrics such as four-year graduation rates and artificial faculty-to-student ratios to rate the effectiveness of our institutions. The measures by which our institutions should be graded needs a major overhaul in the 21st century. If our accreditation agencies have already adopted this overhaul in the expected objectives of our programs, there is no reason why we should not follow suit. 

I will be the first person to say that I was not born in a log cabin that I built myself. I have been fortunate to have family and friends who have been my greatest cheerleaders. I want to thank my spouse Sherrie for her unwavering support and for laughing at my jokes—you are my rock. Thank you to our children, Candace and Angelie, for being hard teachers of my soft skills and for challenging my comfort zones.  

Thank you to the National Science Foundation for supporting the development of the open courseware. 

Thank you to the University of South Florida administration, many of whom are here, including President Judy Genshaft, Provost Ralph Wilcox and Dean John Wiencek, for creating a vibrant learning environment in a nontraditional setting and nurturing the balance among the trinity of teaching, research and service.

Thank you to my friends, Ali, Suneet, Koman, Rajiv, Ramesh, Ram and Ebrahim for sharing my moments of joy and for carrying me during times of adversity, and also for the numerous, lengthy, repetitive but categorical discussions we have about education.  

Thank you to my late father for being a role model of service leadership and for giving me the love of movies and music. Thank you to my mother for raising me while making innumerable sacrifices and for the wise counsel every Saturday morning. 

Lastly, this award is for all whose gentle but strong persuasions come from the search of truth and the power of quiet. Thank you, Susan Cain.