Breipohl family gives teaching fellowships a helping hand
In 2008, MU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department initiated a teaching fellows program under the direction of Jim Keller, director of graduate studies and then-Department Chair Noah Manring to give graduate students interested in teaching an experience that went beyond the typical teaching assistantship.
Associate Department Head Robert O’Connell modified the program in 2012 to provide the teaching fellows with instruction in modern student-centered active learning, which research shows to be a more effective general teaching strategy than traditional lecturing.
“Students should be designing circuits, not watching their instructor doing it,” O’Connell said of the strategy.
It is difficult to convince faculty, especially those at a research-intensive university, to learn and use student-centered active learning because, as O’Connell explained, “People teach the way they were taught. Our teaching fellows program allows us to produce new faculty for the very near future who will be experienced with the modern approach.
Since 2008, 49 ECE semester-long graduate teaching fellowships have been awarded, with some students participating more than once.
On a recent visit to the College of Engineering, alumnus Art Breipohl, who earned his degree in electrical engineering in 1954, and his wife Shirley were so impressed with the program, they made a gift to the department to fund a fifth fellow for this academic year.
“I had a nice long meeting with [Department Chair] Dr. [Chi-Ren] Shyu, Dr. Keller and with Dr. O’Connell and was impressed with what they were doing,” Breipohl said. “I taught most of my career and was a department chair, too. It’s easier to get funding for research assistants than it is to support teaching assistants.”
O’Connell serves as mentor to the program fellows and firmly believes in student-centered active learning, especially the particular strategy known as team based learning (TBL), which enables students to develop generic professional skills such as problem-solving and interpersonal team skills while learning the course conceptual material better than with the traditional lecture-based strategy.
He said because of funding challenges in the department, the Breipohl’s gift meant the department was able to add a fifth fellow to the current class, and named Fadi Muheidat as the first recipient of the Breipohl gift. They are so pleased with the program they decided to provide another round of funding.
“I found that I loved teaching,” said Muheidat of his first experiences at the head of the classroom. “This is the area I want to be in. I want to be a teaching professor.”
O’Connell said that those accepted as fellows begin by taking a five-part online class that he developed. “It’s a self-paced course on learning about learning,” he said.
Using TBL, students in a given class are formed into academically equal groups. In what O’Connell termed a type of “classroom flip,” students must complete reading assignments before attending class. Minimum lecturing is done during class; instead, the student teams work on applying what they have read to assignments presented to them each class period.
“The student teams write, speak and work together,” O’Connell said. “One of the best things about TBL is that moving between groups, I can easily spot the difficulties they are having. Immediate feedback is so important in order to nip difficulties in the bud.”
O’Connell said that often, groups are having trouble with the same concept, which really helps identify problems, things that would not have been apparent in a lecture-type situation.
He uses discretionary unannounced readiness quizzes at the start of class to motivate the students to do the pre-class reading. Peer assessment also factors into final grades, which makes students more likely to participate in the group’s work equitably and with consideration for their teammates.
Muheidat said he came to MU on the recommendation of a friend. In his second semester, he began working in the lab of ECE Professor Harry Tyrer, who encouraged him to apply for one of the department’s teaching fellowships. He took O’Connell’s online training class and has become a proponent of the active learning philosophy.
“Students are active, and they must be involved to learn. They have to have accountability, which is good for engineers who often work as part of a team,” Muheidat said.
He is teaching electric circuit theory, which ECE students must master to move on. When he poses a question in class, he asks for volunteers to answer, but if no one volunteers, he calls on people at random.
Muheidat said O’Connell has helped him a lot, and now that he has experienced TBL, he prefers this interactive way of teaching, which he said results in better outcomes for students.
“I believe I have statistics to back it up,” he said and added that there are many ways to measure the program’s success.
“At the end of one class, I got a thank-you note from a student who took my class. She said, ‘Thank you. I am a shy person and working in a small group was better for me,’” Muheidat said.
The fellows meet as a peer group every three weeks to share their experiences. In addition to Muheidat, Brady Gall, Emily Baxter, Somik Mukherjee and Luis Rivera are teaching fellows this academic year.
Muheidat, O’Connell, and the other three fellows from last year recently co-authored a paper on the teaching fellows program and presented it at an American Society of Engineering Education regional conference. Muheidat said they received a lot of positive feedback on their effort.
“An experience like this, using student-centered learning would benefit any young professor,” said O’Connell. “I don’t dictate specifically how the teaching fellows should teach their classes. I ask only that they try some form of active learning, which they have all done.”
Muheidat said he is grateful to the faculty and his peers for making him feel comfortable and “at home,” to Tyrer for his kindness and guidance, and to the Breipohls for their support of the department’s teaching fellowship.
“We are fortunate to have a true partnership with Dr. and Mrs. Breiphol, dedicated faculty and talented graduate students to develop innovative pedagogy to educate next generation electrical and computer engineers,” said Shyu.
Breipohl, who taught at both Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma and also served as department chair at the University of Kansas, said that after he and Shirley funded an engineering scholarship aimed at helping students from small towns in Missouri, he began to think about funding a graduate teaching fellowship.
“I would have liked to have one available to me when I was a chairman,” he said. “If outside people [alumni] pay attention to what’s going on, we can help.”