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Spotlight

Joseph Towles

Lecturer
Mechanical Engineering
Story originally published on Apr 2022
I was in high school the first time I heard the word “engineer” used separately from conducting a train.

I liked math and science, and someone told me I should think about becoming an engineer because it mixes those two disciplines. In college I was drawn to the physics of things that move – gears, pulleys, things that are thrown – and I chose to study mechanical engineering. I also had an interest in medicine, and how engineering could be used to help make us stronger, or at least put us back together following illness or an injury, which eventually morphed into my interest in bioengineering.

Today I teach broadly within bioengineering and mechanical engineering, helping students understand how things bend and break, how to begin to control things that move, and how to apply a design-thinking framework to solve problems. On the research side, I partner with medical professionals to try to figure out how to restore useful function to the hand following neurologic injury. I have a second research interest, which is education. I’ve always loved the idea of making difficult things easier for people to understand. But in graduate school I wasn’t taught how to teach or manage classes, how to care for my students, or how to make complicated material accessible to 18-year-olds. That’s changing now, but I wasn’t satisfied with my own teaching ability, and I knew I could do better. So beginning around 2015 I started researching the subject and taking classes on how to teach science and engineering in a college setting, and I’ve never stopped.

My goal in all this is not just to deliver the course material; it’s to provide a learning experience that develops students so they’re prepared for the next level. Engineering is difficult, and it builds on itself. If there’s a disconnect between what I’m teaching and what my students perceive, I run the risk of having those students get turned off. It could be difficult for them to recover, and it’s possible that they may never recover, and end up changing disciplines. This can be especially true with respect to students who are not brought up in affluent schools with great resources and who may require additional – or simply a different kind of – attention. Students come into engineering with a diversity of preparation levels that have to be accounted for. Not everyone is at the same starting point, but you are tasked with getting all of them to the same endpoint at the end of class. You have to really see your students, and be thoughtful about what they’re experiencing and how you can support them and be their cheerleader. Good teaching goes way beyond delivering the material.

Most students remember and have stories about those instructors who finally manage to distill something that was complex into something they could understand. I’d like to be one of those teachers who shows up in stories 20 years from now.

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