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James Dennison, Ph.D. - Teaching Philosophy

James Dennison, Ph.D. - Teaching Philosophy

OVERVIEW

An Engineering degree is considered a professional degree like those in Law and Medicine. As such, it is expected that those being granted an Engineering degree should be capable of carrying out useful and practical applications of basic engineering principles. To do this engineering students need to be trained in both the applied and classic academic approaches to engineering. This is my philosophy of engineering education and coincides precisely with my interests, abilities, and teaching methods.

Today engineering students need to make a more rapid transition from academia to industry due to increased global competitiveness brought on by a sluggish world economy. What pushes global competitiveness issues to the forefront are the rapidly expanding number of multinational business ventures as well as the availability of large numbers of engineers, technicians, programmers, and technically skilled workers from emerging economies.  Added to this is the ease with which skilled and knowledgeable people can already communicate across international boundaries by using satellites to transfer information instantaneously. In effect then tomorrow's engineers, even those employed by the more regional firms, will have no choice other than to compete in a global skills marketplace. In larger project development efforts the teams will be multi-national, geographically separated, and only linked electronically - there is a high probability that they will never need to physically meet face-to-face.

For example, tomorrow's project development team might well consist of the most creative marketing representative, the most prolific  programmer, the most effective manager, and the most innovative engineer -> physically located in Brazil, India, France, and Germany respectively. To effectively address this type of global competitiveness, engineering students need to be trained so that they are as competitive and productive as soon as possible upon entering the workforce.

PREPARATION

During my sojourns as an IBM international resident assignee I learned the practical side of engineering in research / development labs and manufacturing plants in the U.S., Germany, France, and Japan. Specifically, over the course of my industrial career I was trained and practiced as: an analog circuit designer, a digital logic developer, a controls system engineer, a product test evaluator, and a technical project manager.

As an IBM technical project manager I was responsible for several interdisciplinary products conceived, researched, developed, tested, manufactured, and marketed at multiple international sites. The skill set of my employees encompassed electronics, mechanics, optics, materials, programming, manufacturing, and marketing.  The most innovative product development I had leadership responsibility for was the IBM 3363 optical drive & media system - the world's first writeable optical storage system embedded in a personal computer. I was awarded an outstanding contribution leadership award for this effort.

Another unique leadership experience I had was as the Faculty Member in Residence (FMR) for the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering & Science (WISE). For 2 consecutive sessions (2002 & 2003), I taught and guided a total of 25 high performing university students on a broad spectrum of public policy issues in Washington, DC. Each of these students wrote an individual mini-thesis on pressing public policy topics. These papers can be viewed on-line by going to www.wise-intern.org and following the links to the Journal of Engineering and Public Policy. There is widespread  interest in learning how student engineers can directly support lawmakers being faced with making public policy decisions that have high technical content (as they have to do for years in the U.S.).

Finally, I've had 4 other notable leadership experiences:

  • Vice-President of Engineering at an optical RAM start-up company for 1 ½ years that was purchased by Microsoft,
  • IEEE Executive Fellow for international competitiveness studies reporting to the Under Secretary for Technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, DC, for 2 years,
  • MSU Faculty Senate President, and
  • MSU AAUP Chapter President.

I began developing my international teaching ability while training my IBM subordinates at locations in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Over the last 12 years I've continued developing my teaching skills in the engineering system sciences by resident university teaching assignments in the U.S., Germany (3 times), and Australia. My primary focus has been on analog & digital circuits, electronics, control systems, active & passive network synthesis, and electro-mechanics.

METHODOLOGY

Engineering education is being indirectly driven to evolve as a result of global competitiveness and tomorrow's engineers will face a more competitive skills marketplace than that encountered by their predecessors. Engineering educators need to still maintain academic rigor in their teaching but also begin to introduce those more practical engineering analyses and design approaches historically postponed and learned later by engineers when they are in industry. I use a mix of applied & academic engineering techniques to teach my students.

Experience has shown me that using the following 4 phase analysis & design approach works well with motivated students and leads to a rapid maturation of their grasp of practical engineering design practices:

  1. academic rigor to develop and analyze an analytical model based on device characteristics,
  2. computer simulation and data analysis using a well articulated engine such as Electronic Workbench,
  3. physical fabrication and test in the lab,
  4. comparison of results obtained from the first 3 phases and an investigation into any result differences that occur.

Instilling technical rigor into an engineering course often isn't much of a challenge. It's the usual approach, is inherent in any standard text's presentation of the subject material, and most engineering students are exposed to sufficient math training to understand even a sophisticated system's analytical model. However, students often encounter difficulty in understanding the meaning behind equations, device properties, graphs, and tables. They need to be shown how to make simplifying workable assumptions and approximations based on practical considerations. For instance, understanding the analytical equation for the ac voltage gain of a complicated common emitter transistor amplifier can appear formidable but, by making some practical observations, it can quickly be simplified to the ratio of 2 (easily calculated) equivalent ac impedances. Other simplifications can also be made for realistic approximations of the other amplifier parameters (i.e., input & output impedances) and for the corresponding characteristics of other types of transistor amplifiers. Resorting instead to either a "brute force" or "cut & try" approach (if indeed students ever can get them to work) squanders time, material, & effort and will be an unaffordable & unacceptable approach for any employer who is trying to compete in a competitive global marketplace.

Computer simulation can play an important role in introducing actual, non-ideal device characteristic models and their resulting effects on overall system performance. For instance, virtually all lower division engineering students are introduced to the operational amplifier (with ideal open loop characteristics) and to its more popular applications. However, based on what they have been taught, most of them cannot explain the frequency dependent nature of the closed loop amplifier gain that's observed in laboratory tests (or obtained by using computer simulation): and they are completely at a loss to be able to quantify the closed loop bandwidth - knowledge that's certainly crucial not only just for a circuit designer but also for an electrical engineer of any stripe who's simply trying to follow a product audit (the op amp is ubiquitous). Extending the simulation analyses to include other non-ideal op amp characteristics such as common mode rejection ratio, slew rate, & offset voltage - current limitations is a real eye opener and an effective teaching tool. Once students are introduced to and employ more realistic op amp models and thereby obtain tight model-simulation-hardware results correlation, the motivated ones are eager and willing to delve into the world of practical engineering design and explore other layers of applied engineering knowledge.

Students take that final step on the bridge spanning the gap between engineering theory and practice by investigating any result differences between phase 1-3 results. They need to experience first hand (and then be required to explain) the effects on system performance due to device parametric fluctuations that are brought on by varying manufacturing environments and materials. For example, in my graduate network synthesis course unique projects are assigned to teams of 4-6 students. These teams are responsible to carry out and then report to the class on the results of the first two design phases (analytical analysis & computer simulation) prior to proceeding to the final stages (hardware tests and results explanation). They research, explain, answer questions, and deliver written & oral reports to the class on the differences and abnormalities in results obtained during each design phase. These types of exercises prepare them for the crucial system performance and tolerance analysis issues key to product development and manufacturability. Fortunately, the language of engineering is primarily mathematics and totally intractable issues rarely occur after one-on-one coaching sessions.

CULTURAL SENSITIVITY

Are there other useful ideas to accomplish my goal of training engineers to be more effective in a globally competitive environment? I'm certain of it!  I've discovered new approaches to teaching and communication during almost every foreign assignment I've had. I'm counting on learning new ideas from my foreign students and on assignments that can be shared with colleagues and students at McNeese.

A deep understanding of international development activities, cultural differences, and teaching techniques cannot be gained by the "snapshot" views one would get as a tourist or from short-term business trips. My exposure to these things has come about during several long-term ex-pat residency assignments where I lived & worked through issues side-by-side with foreign nationals in their own environments and, together with them, found mutually acceptable & workable issue resolutions. Over the years I've learned to adjust my teaching / management style, demeanor, and problem solution approach as the national venue changed. For instance, what is appropriate and effective in authoritative sensitive Germany would be disastrous in consensus sensitive Japan. To be effective, instructors in multi-cultural venues must adapt. My foreign resident assignments in Asia, Europe, and Australia total more than ten years. A considerable amount of personal time and effort during my assignments in each of these regions was devoted to getting to know the host country, to explore its culture, and to interact with a spectrum of its people.

CONCLUDING STATEMENTS

"…the path less traveled." That Robert Frost excerpt succinctly describes my education, professional activities, and teaching experience.  My sojourn has encompassed varied venues, cultures, customs, and peoples while instilling in me a wealth of teaching experience and cultural sensitivity awareness. My industrial, academic, and government experiences have had a significant, and positive, effect on my development as a teacher and on my effectiveness in preparing students for successful engineering and technical management careers in international research, development, manufacturing, and business.

Finally, I've found that this world still is a very big place, that many different types of people live in it, and the majority of them don't speak, think or act the way we Americans do…and, most importantly, that that obstacle can be effectively dealt with if we make the effort to find a way to learn and communicate with each other. This will help us to jointly find a way to come to an understanding on issues important to us all.