Glenn W. Ellis - Passion for Teaching Statement

Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year
Glenn W. Ellis
Associate Professor of Engineering
Smith College

I remember my straightforward focus when I began teaching was to deliver clear, informative and, I hoped, interesting lectures about engineering. But gradually, my focus shifted. I became an ardent scholar of learning and along the way came to believe that better teaching could actually guide students to create a better world. And ultimately, it occurred to me that I might have a hand in shaping the nature of how engineering is taught.

Prompted by globalization and rapid changes in technology, today's engineering leaders are calling for major change in how engineering is taught. They also want to boost women's persistently low numbers (representing just 9 percent) in the engineering field.

I joined Smith College, a women's college, because I had the opportunity to help create the first engineering program specifically designed for women. Since it took hold at Smith, three consecutive classes have produced retention rates far exceeding the national average. Our program has received accreditation and has been nationally recognized as a model of engineering education reform.

My biggest challenge was to design instruction based on research about how people learn and then implement it systematically throughout the curriculum. I've led teaching workshops and developed tools such as engineering concept maps. An example is using the concept of a horse and rider to illustrate key concepts of continuum mechanics. Scaling up these approaches to a program-wide and national level may have the greatest impact on the profession.

However, what inspires me on a daily basis are the personal relationships I develop with my students as we learn together. My classroom approach is to engage by focusing on each learner's need.I use concept questions, hands-on discovery learning, group problemsolving, investigative case studies and project-based learning. Peer teaching, self-reflective narratives and student-directed projects are some of the metacognitive approaches I use to help students take control of their own learning.

I also strive to integrate engineering with the liberal arts. My goal is to replace engineering training with a more holistic experience that inspires meaningful learning, reflection, personal growth and enlightenment. For example, I teach the concept of artificial intelligence within a philosophy of the mind conceptual framework. Students thereby think more broadly about AI and the nature of their own existence. In continuum mechanics, students work on project teams to produce their own educational videos.

Reforming undergraduate engineering education is only part of the story. It is well known that to really impact the profession we must reach younger ages. I have begun working with K-12 teachers using a program that shows how engineering serves people and can support a sustainable future. I am also co-leading a project to write novels for middle-school girls that integrate stories with engineering activities.

The fundamental ideas of teaching and learning also support better community, relationships, dialogue-the things that bring the most joy to the classroom. We can see that the ideas are working in rising retention rates and consistently positive student feedback. But there is another more personal measure: the e-mails I receive from alumni years later, still seeking advice and connection. There is also the shared delight over classroom jokes and discoveries, and- music that will ring for a long time-the sound of a dozen students lined up at my office door, singing a song about engineering they composed just for me.

Nominate a professor for the 2012 awards program.


View highlights from the 2013 awards luncheon

Video Gallery

View 2014 photo gallery

Purchase 2014 photos

Program Sponsors