AE3's Collins Scholars Program Provides Foundation for Young Faculty


Mike Koon, Engineering Communications Office

Engineering at Illinois is widely recognized as a world-class leader in both research and education. The College’s dedication to attracting the brightest students is reflected in high-level faculty that now exceeds 400 members. Through the years the College has recognized its responsibility in preparing new faculty to follow in the footsteps of giants by providing them with a proper foundation of success.

The Academy of Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3) is an important vehicle for training and support for the entire faculty, but especially those new to the College. Through the Collins Scholars program, AE3 provides first-year assistant and associate professors important resources to get their teaching careers off to an efficient, productive start. AE3 has been doing faculty development since 1994 and the goal of the Collins Scholar program is to provide new faculty personalized attention with a strong focus on teaching and classroom observations.

Collins Scholars meet weekly at lunchtime for presentations on different teaching topics -- from developing a course syllabus to classroom management to student assessment. The sessions also allow new faculty to ask questions on any topic and share ideas in a comfortable, collegial setting.

"We want to welcome new faculty and let them know that they are part of a community that supports them, believes in them and gives them what they need to be successful,” said Leslie Crowley, associate director for AE3.

The Collins Scholars program includes the opportunity to observe some of the top teaching faculty Illinois has to offer, receive feedback from members of the AE3 staff, and attend social events that are open to family members. The program has a high percentage of participation and the takeaways are numerous.

Below are brief sketches of first-year professors and how they have benefited from the Collins Scholars program

Jessica Krogstad is returning as a faculty member to the Department of Material Science and Engineering after graduating from the program. She earned her PhD at UC-Santa Barbara, specializing in phase evolution and durability in high temperature thermal barrier coatings used in gas turbine engines. She then spent two years in the mechanical engineering department at Johns Hopkins focusing on small-scale mechanical characterization methods.

“It’s a lot of fun to be back in this department,” Krogstad said. “Despite having some familiarity with campus, AE3 and the Collins Scholar Program have given me a lot more confidence.”

Like many young faculty, much of her career to date has been focused on research, which means she now has access to state-of-the-art characterization facilities in the Frederick Seitz Material Research Laboratory. However, the transition to an assistant professor has meant much more of her focus has been in the classroom.

“When it comes to teaching, the Collins Scholar program has been fantastic,” Krogstad said. “It has given me a foothold and a central place to share ideas and challenges. I have been able to meet so many first-year and young faculty members and have developed a lot of relationships both socially and professionally.

Krogstad meets regularly with her official mentor, professor Nancy Sottos, and is in the starting stages of a project with Paul Braun. She also has received a lot of support from one of the Collins Scholar Fellows, associate professor Dallas Trinkle, who redesigned the course that Krogstad is currently teaching.

Krogstad and her husband Dan, a research scientist at the Illinois Applied Research Institute, have a two-year old daughter, Madeline.

First-year assistant professor Nenad Miljovic (right) quickly incorporated feedback he received from students and observations from Collins Scholars staff into his classroom.
First-year assistant professor Nenad Miljovic (right) quickly incorporated feedback he received from students and observations from Collins Scholars staff into his classroom.
Nenad Miljkovic joins the Mechanical Science and Engineering Department. Miljkovic is a native of Serbia, was raised in Toronto and earned both a master’s and a PhD at MIT. His research interests include the thermal sciences, particularly experimental studies of phase change heat transfer (evaporation, condensation, freezing, and boiling) on functional micro- and nanoengineered surfaces.

Although he has been a guest lecturer from time-to-time and a frequent conference speaker, this has been his first experience full-time in the classroom.

Miljkovic gives a strong endorsement of the Collins Scholar program, finding the informal early feedback session particularly useful. About a month in he asked for feedback from his 400-level class that included 29 graduate students and one undergrad.

“I learned some things quickly that I didn’t even think about, such as how helpful a short break in the middle of a two-hour class would be and that I was moving a little quickly and not giving them enough time to copy the notes off the board before they were erased. Those were simple things, but very helpful to the rest of the semester. I had a lot of comments in the end of year review thanking me for making the changes.”

Miljkovic also saw value in the observation that the staff had of his classroom, which included going over video of his lecture. “I saw a particular mannerism that I do with my hands that I never realized until I saw myself on the screen.”

Miljkovic is using the spring semester to get his lab up and running. His research strikes a balance between the fundamental and applied. He has some funding from the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Center (ACRC), a consortium of more than 30 companies that provides grants for applied research. His mid-range goal is to solve at least one or two of the widespread fundament problems that are prevalent in the field of phase-change heat transfer.

Away from the office, he and his wife, Tuyet-Mai Hoang, a PhD candidate in the Department of Counseling Psychology, are food connoisseurs who love to travel and spend time with family.

Hari Sundaram also comes to Illinois with a lot of experience, including 12 years as an associate professor at Arizona State University.

Sundaram is in his first year at Illinois as an associate professor in computer science with his research at the intersection of how networks and advertising frameworks can help persuade behaviors that are of benefit to everyone, such as eating healthy, exercising, and voting.

“When you think about advertising you normally think about the message, but it’s not just about the persuasive message, it’s also about the study of networks,” Sundaram said. “How do you find out who is important, how behavior is diffused and what are the conditions under which they diffuse? Can you order the structure of the social network, form new connections such that you reach a tipping point about behavior adoption? These are the questions I would like to answer.”

Admittedly, Sundaram was skeptical whether the Collins Scholar program would be of value to someone who was confident in the classroom and had such experience.

“However, I was surprised by one benefit that wasn’t obvious at the time I started, which was I would meet a lot of interesting faculty excited about their research,” Sundaram said. “For me, Collins Scholars is appealing because I have met new people, who have turned into good research collaborations. I have also learned a lot about teaching. Visiting classrooms has been illuminating. I realized that for many of the top teachers even the off the cuff remarks were carefully scripted. It was enlightening to see how a really good communicator manages a large class.”

Sundaram enjoys photography and jazz and he and his wife, Sonali Shah, a professor in the College of Business are also new parents. “The Urbana-Champaign community here is absolutely amazing,” he said. “People are very kind and generous with their time and resources.”

Crowley is impressed with the quality each new class of faculty and is motivated to help them succeed. “We continue to flex with what we feel like is in the best interest of the new faculty,” she concluded. “We’re proud of them. We want departments to understand the commitment their faculty are making and we appreciate they are supporting that commitment.”