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Training the new masters of engineering instruction

AE3 Collins Scholars Program continues network of support, resources for new faculty

by Heather Coit

On a humid, fall day, students packed the 303-seat auditorium in Loomis Laboratory as Physics Professor Tim Stelzer brought his energetic style of teaching to his Electricity and Magnetism class. Grouped near the room’s top tier, Theresa Saxton-Fox, an Aerospace Engineering professor, sat with five fellow Collins Scholars; and Chris Migotsky, coordinator of faculty teaching programs for the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3).

With i-clickers in hand, students turned their attention to diagrams of parallel capacitor circuits pictured on a screen above while the professors focused on Stelzer and his interactions with students. As Stelzer, an AE3 Education Innovation Fellow, climbed the stairs to better engage some of his students, Saxton-Fox looked down at her glowing tablet and took notes like, “Demonstrates good exam skills on ruling out multiple choice options,” and “Questions really build in difficulty. Reminds me of how I used to deal with math anxiety as a tutor.”


Theresa Saxton-Fox, center, an Aerospace professor, and Chris Migotsky, upper left, coordinator of faculty teaching programs for AE3, observe Tim Stelzer, Physics professor, seen engaging his students in the background, during an "excellent teacher visit" as part of the Collins Scholars program. Saxton-Fox, one of 35 Collins Scholars currently enrolled, will "graduate" from the program in Spring 2020. Photo by Heather Coit

For Saxton-Fox, who began teaching at The Grainger College of Engineering last January, these classroom observations provide first-year faculty, enrolled in the Collins Scholars Program, invaluable lessons in educator training with an informal and accessible approach.

“Having role models for what teaching can look like makes the path towards excellence much clearer,” Saxton-Fox said, who observed both Stelzer and Leon Liebenberg, a Mechanical Science and Engineering professor, in his Design for Manufacturability class. “The program has been a great opportunity to reflect on my teaching, learn about evidence-based teaching practices, identify positive role models, and connect with my peers."

Wayne Chang, a Mechanical Science and Engineering lecturer who graduated from the Collins Scholars program last spring, is among the educators bringing these lessons into his own classroom.

“I did not have much formal training in teaching before coming to the University of Illinois; so having this program was like boot camp, but better because it’s fun,” Chang said, who also observed Stelzer during his enrollment. “Before Collins Scholars, I mainly focused on how well I communicated engineering concepts. Now, I am more equipped to think about different levels of learning, use different tools to engage students under different settings, and set and enforce expectations with students.”


AE3 staff and affiliates help drive the program’s success

When Molly Goldstein, an Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering teaching professor, joined a new crop of faculty in the Collins Scholars program, AE3 staff and affiliates were there to set her on the right path a week before classes began. Engineering Innovation Fellows shared their own experiences and offered useful tips Goldstein was able to use in her classroom from the start.

“Even though I have a Ph.D in engineering education, I learned something practical weekly to make me a more effective educator,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein credits Migotsky and the late Laura Hahn, who until recently was the program’s director, for making Collins Scholars an invaluable service.

“Chris and Laura intentionally created an atmosphere of collaboration and support in the College, of which I am grateful. This program was a complete life-line as a new faculty member. I have told my friends at other universities about Collins Scholars, and they all commented that they wish they had something like it.”

Molly Goldstein, Professor, Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering

Migotsky and Hahn brought their strong background in college-level faculty support to AE3 after having worked at the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning (CITL). The two have been instrumental in leading the program’s activities, which include observation and review of Collins Scholars’ classrooms, a visit to a professor’s classroom, and informal early feedback from students. Participants also attend weekly lunch seminars featuring relevant topics with titles like “science of learning,” “grading rubrics,” “movies and teaching,” and “student motivation.” Graduates can also switch roles by observing current Collins Scholars faculty in class.


Laura Hahn, seated center, is pictured here with, from front row left: Carleen Sacris, Joe Bradley, Kristie Harris, and Gretchen Forman. From back row, from left, are: Chris Migotsky and Ann Perry-Witmer. Photo by Heather Coit.

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“We hope that the new Collins Scholars will gain knowledge and skills that can immediately be applied to their teaching, research, and advising and mentoring,” Migotsky said. “We hope they develop good habits that will encourage future growth as well.”

Yuting Chen, an Electrical and Computer Engineering teaching professor, and Can Bayram, an ECE professor, are among the graduates who remain connected to the unique program.

Chen remained involved with the program by observing Melkior Ornik, an Aerospace professor; and Abigail Wooldridge, an Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering professor, in their classes last year. The 2015-2016 graduate was impressed with what she saw.

“Students were fully engaged in both classes, and the way they taught piqued my interest on those topics,” Chen said. “Their teaching styles were very different, and it was so wonderful to see that because the Collins Scholars program is training faculty to be better in their own ways.”


Yuting Chen, center, an Electrical and Computer Engineering teaching professor and AE3 affiliate, checks out the Strategic Instructional Innovation Program (SIIP) projects with Gabriel Burks, far left, a Bioengineering postdoctoral research associate, and Lucas Anderson, a CITL education specialist, following the Celebration of Teaching program in April 2019. Chen is a 2015-2016 Collins Scholars graduate.Photo by Heather Coit.

Trading places with observers was also a relief for Chen, who admitted she was a bit nervous when Hahn and Katherine Ansell, a graduate student in Physics, observed and recorded her own classroom during her program participation.

“It was a huge relief when I read the feedback from Laura and Katie, which was quite positive overall,” Chen said. “It has guided me to focus on what will make a big difference in my teaching.”

Like Chen, Bayram continues to reap the benefits of the program as he notes its importance for both professors and students.

“I became close friends with almost all Collins Scholars faculty, and we still exchange ideas,” Bayram said, who joined the program in Fall 2014. “We are tasked with one of the most honorable and distinguished responsibilities: Teaching. This is a critical mission for all faculty as University of Illinois graduates will have the power and influence to shape our society.”

“We are tasked with one of the most honorable and distinguished responsibilities: Teaching. This is a critical mission for all faculty as University of Illinois graduates will have the power and influence to shape our society.”

Can Bayram, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering


It takes a community to create a community for new professors

Migotsky and Hahn were in attendance when 21 Collins Scholars graduated from the program at the annual Celebration of Teaching event in 2019. That same week, there was another reason to celebrate. Just four days before, Illinois Engineering officially became The Grainger College of Engineering with a new $100 million gift from The Grainger Foundation.

Dean Rashid Bashir stressed the continued need for a program that guides new instructors in the “philosophy and science of teaching,” as he addressed a room full of AE3 staff, seasoned professors, and Collins Scholars in what is now the Nick Holonyak, Jr. Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory.

“I think the impact that we’re having on the students comes from our core mission and our core priority, which is really at the end of the day, students,” Bashir said.

Bashir pointed to Illinois alumnus, William Wallace Grainger, a 1919 Electrical Engineering graduate, as one of those students who was positively influenced by his undergraduate years; and whose ties to the university continue today through his son, David Grainger, and The Grainger Foundation.


Theresa Saxton-Fox, right, assistant professor in Aerospace, works with Aadhy Sundarajan, a graduate student, at a wind tunnel where they measure turbulent layer, the temporal control field, and the dynamic pressure gradients at Engineering Student Project Laboratory on July 18, 2019. The research group focuses on the behavior of air as it flows past surfaces.  Photo by Heather Coit

“I think it’s really because of the experience he had here as an undergraduate,” Bashir said, referring to Grainger’s generosity 100 years later. The Grainger Foundation’s total support is currently more than $300 million.

For Abigail Wooldridge, who received her Ph.D in Industrial Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the program was essential in creating a sense of belonging for her and her fellow graduates.

“Let’s keep envisioning the future; live some part of our time in the future, and let’s work backwards to implement that vision now in the education space.”

Rashid Bashir, Dean, Grainger Engineering

“Some of us aren’t from here,” Wooldridge told the audience. “You put us all together in this room; we’re each having similar experiences, similar challenges, and similar wins that we all get to experience together.”

Abdussalam Alawini, a Computer Science teaching professor, echoed this sentiment when he took his turn to speak at what he described as a “real graduation.”

“It really is a community,” Alawini said. “Sometimes you feel lonely when you get stuck, so you have people to talk to in an informal setting.”

Across from a large photo hanging on the wall, picturing Holonyak, Jr., the Father of LED Lighting, was a table lined with AE3 drink mugs bearing the Block I on one side and the words, “What’s Next?” on the other. Bashir’s mind was also on the future as he lauded the program.

“How can we generate more innovation around undergraduate education?” Rashid said. “Let’s keep envisioning the future; live some part of our time in the future, and let’s work backwards to implement that vision now in the education space.”

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The Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3), which has provided teaching resources since the mid-1990s, changed their program name from FastStart to Collins Scholars in 2010 in recognition of University of Illinois alumnus, William Leighton Collins (Civil Engineering, B.S. 1928, M.S. 1932). Collins, who taught Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from 1939 until 1965, became the first Executive Director of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).



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A memorial fund has been established in honor of Laura Hahn, the long-time director of the Academy of Excellence in Engineering Education. Give to the Laura Hahn Faculty Support Fund and invest in excellent faculty members and programs that advance Grainger Engineering’s innovations in education and learning. On the giving page, be sure to indicate “Laura Hahn Faculty Support Fund” in the “Other” box at the bottom of the page.

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