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The importance of teaching to our mission and global impact

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May 2015

After four busy months, SoE’s strategic planning process is well underway. Enthusiasm and momentum are high, and based on my discussions with the SoE-Future committee, the ideas being generated with the help of our internal and external audiences are exactly what we might expect – thoughtful, innovative, and potentially transformative. The committee is formulating recommendations that are being shared and honed with faculty and staff in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

That said, I would like to talk about one major theme that certainly will be an integral part of the SoE-Future report: the importance of teaching to our mission and global impact. Two recent experiences have reminded me of how much students inspire teachers and teachers inspire students, and how important both are for creating the best and most rewarding educational experience.

First, let me talk about how students inspire teachers by describing a class I taught during winter quarter. Each year, about 550 freshmen enroll in Physics 41 – Mechanics, a required course for all engineering students. As you might imagine, students come into P41 with a wide variety of preparation so, a few years ago, we began offering a companion course, P41A, for students who were not confident of their preparation in math and physics. I have taught this companion course for two years. Two-thirds of the students in the class are women, half are students of color, and all are dedicated and motivated. There is a reason they were admitted to Stanford! It’s clear that P41A makes a difference – in their performance, in their self-confidence, and in their decision to pursue engineering or other STEM fields. These students are the perfect example of how dedicated, enthusiastic learners can motivate a teacher, and they have made the class the most rewarding that I have ever taught. Their determination and persistence, along with a sense of purpose and strong leadership skills, are exactly what we want in our future engineers.

To illustrate teachers inspiring students, I’d like to tell you about our Terman Scholar Awards Ceremony, an extraordinary event I attended last month. Named after former SoE Dean Fred Terman, these awards honor engineering undergraduates who place in the top five percent of the graduating class. This year, we recognized 35 remarkable individuals, each with a unique, inspiring story and a bright future. Each year, the scholars invite the high school teachers who most influenced them, to attend the ceremony here at Stanford. The award is to recognize the students, but the ceremony recognizes the teachers, and allows us to thank them for helping develop these scholars.

We ask the high school teachers to speak for a few minutes and I listened to one incredibly moving story after another. These dedicated teachers sacrifice much and inspire greatly. About half the teachers were from math, physics, and chemistry. The other half were from English, music, history, and languages. It was clearly so much more about the person than the subject when it came to motivating their students. In the smiles and, often, tears of joy that accompanied this moving ceremony, one could vividly witness that the impact of a great teacher lasts a lifetime.  

We at Stanford benefit enormously from the work of these wonderful teachers, and we are incredibly fortunate to have smart, idealistic students like the ones in my P41A class. The best educators know how to motivate students, and those students, in turn, motivate and energize their teachers. It’s a cycle I see every day here at SoE that is creating our next generation of leaders and teachers, and it’s something that makes me incredibly optimistic about the future.  


Persis Drell

Frederick Emmons Terman Dean, Stanford School of Engineering
James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering
Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Physics, Stanford University