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Electrical Engineering Professor Charlie Gross...
After 33 years of teaching, Charlie Gross is still dazzled by engineering.
"We're in the middle of a revolution," he pointedly says. "Seventy-five percent of the current engineering curriculum wasn't around when I began teaching."
That would have been 1962, when Gross, one of electrical engineering's most acclaimed faculty members, first stepped in front of a chalkboard.
It would signal the beginning of a journey he has yet to complete, although he has taught graduates and undergraduates along the way; on campus and off-campus; through video courses and before continuing education classes; and by example as well.
He has been recognized for his teaching efforts at Auburn as a three-time recipient of the Outstanding Electrical Engineering Professor Award, a distinction he also achieved an equal number of times at the University of Missouri at Rolla, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees.
Gross has also been named as a recipient of the Birdsong Award, the College of Engineering's highest teaching honor; elected as Mortar Board's favorite educator; and credited with the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal at West Point, where he taught as a visiting professor.
The University of Alabama, where he received degrees in both physics and electrical engineering, named him to the Outstanding Fellow Award in electrical engineering in 1991, and this year selected him as Distinguished Engineering Fellow.
He has served as professor of the Square D Endowed Chair of Electrical Power Engineering at Auburn since 1982.
While his commitment was there from the beginning, he points out that the art and science of teaching took years to develop.
"How do you teach effectively? What are the mechanics? Those are the first questions that I asked myself," Gross says. "Now that I'm older and know how people learn, I find myself questioning curriculum content more."
In terms of curriculum development, Gross notes that there are some faculty who favor programs with mostly required courses, while others advocate a much more flexible approach with many more electives.
"I lean toward the former," he notes. "It's important today to give students the opportunity to look at a wide range of engineering practice because the economy who's hiring is changing so quickly. Specialty areas can wait for graduate school. That's why it's there."
In terms of his own classroom, Gross sees no less of a revolution.
"The availability of computers and calculators has resulted in a fundamental change in the way we teach engineering now," he explains. "It took a lot of time and trouble to calculate by slide rule in the sixties, and there were a lot of formulas we had to remember.
"Calculators have drastically reduced this need; they do an awful lot of the engineering we used to do. For example, calculation of hyperbolic functions of complex numbers used to require several weeks to teach; now the topic is covered in less than half a lecture.
"Our knowledge base is constantly doubling . . . to keep up you have to know what to throw away and what to keep. New tools change philosophies and ways of doing things."
Computers are remaking classroom instruction as well, Gross adds.
"What can only be shown statically on a blackboard can be illustrated in motion on a computer, and the result is that students pick up on it much better," he notes.
Gross points to revolutionary new approaches to engineering education that go beyond the computer as well.
"Communication is the biggest key here," he points out. "We need to graduate students who can talk not only to their fellow engineers, but to the public beyond.
"I think that we need to do this by stressing communications skills within engineering classes, not just externally through courses in the English department. I've started to factor that skill into tests and graded assignments," he adds.
"It's not an 'either or' thing where you can decide to concentrate on engineering or English . . . it's an 'and' thing. Nobody is going to appreciate your ideas unless you can communicate them."
Gross believes students today are as bright and as well prepared as they have ever been. There are differences in specific strengths and weaknesses, he adds.
He sometimes wishes for more creative discussion in class when problems are discussed. He notes that one unpopular question he hears is whether or not the material will be on a quiz.
"For me, it's a privilege to teach," he quickly adds.
"I truly believe in lifelong learning. Teaching to me means making the complex simple and helping people. That's the challenge that keeps me in the classroom."
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