Dr. Timothy D. Placek
Undergraduate Program Committee Chair
Department of Chemical Engineering
Auburn University, AL 36849-5127
I believe my chosen career as a university professor has provided me with a unique opportunity to contribute to the shaping of society and the future. For almost 35 years, I have seen how important fostering a love of learning in my students is to their future success. From the earliest opportunities that I had to interact with students, my goal was to make a positive difference in their lives, thereby repaying those faculty members who nurtured and encouraged me when I was pursuing my engineering education.
I believe my primary responsibility is to provide students with the skills, knowledge and experience necessary so that they can expand their personal horizons and have the ability to be successful in their chosen careers and lives. At the heart of my teaching philosophy is my belief that students need to be not just educated but mentored so that they will appreciate the opportunities that exist during their college years and the profound affect their response to these opportunities can have on their future satisfaction and happiness. The years spent as an undergraduate engineering student are among the most formative and important in a developing professional’s life. Attitudes, skills, and insights developed and acquired at this time are the template for the rest of their years in a demanding and rewarding profession.
I believe that teaching is much more than just delivering knowledge in a convenient format to our students. One of my most important functions is to help students learn how to learn, how to effectively solve problems, and how to judge the long-range impact of their solutions and recommendations on society. I endeavor to make students active participants in their education by making my classroom lectures two-way experiences. Interactive lectures and “on the spot” thinking and analysis are employed to let students learn how to form their own view of the information they are presented with. I believe students do not learn material as a result of my simply lecturing on it, but that true learning takes place when the student has made the principles at the heart of the lecture part of their life-view. To be a successful engineer means to see life though a very different set of eyes than most people have. Helping students “relearn to see“ is one of the most challenging yet rewarding of my missions.
I also believe in the value of students working in small groups or teams on projects in most of my courses. In this way students take more responsibility for their own education. This is especially important in engineering education since people normally work cooperatively. Students are exposed to problems where they must find information and data broadly rather than narrowly from their required textbooks. By carefully designing such special projects, students can explore their own intellectual capabilities in a cooperative environment. Most of these projects culminate in a written or oral presentation so that students can share their ideas and encourage each other with their excitement as well as practicing the important skills of effectively communicating technical information.
In a world increasingly characterized by short “snippets” of attention, today’s students often have difficulty remaining interested. I believe the professor’s first task to motivate their student’s interest and ensure they are excited about the subject matter. I find that exposing students to “real world problems” (not just limited to problems selected from industry) greatly increases their interest as well as helping them appreciate that engineering solutions exist to meet the needs of society. Students are encouraged to see the principles being lectured on in their classes at work in the world around them. I strive to show them how classroom training relates to the challenges they will one day be facing as a practicing engineer. Further, I try to employ computer software and other advanced techniques in my classroom to make the class vivid. Where students are found to be lacking appropriate computer or analytical skills I provide additional materials to supplement their understanding.
I expect students to be active participants in the learning process. With this expectation, I function as a facilitator in the learning process, rather than the mere deliverer of information. I recognize that students learn in a variety of ways, and I attempt to accommodate these methods. I encourage students to find personalized methods to understand and retain concepts, and I assist them by providing my own customized examples for explanation of concepts that elude them. In addition to different learning processes, I often find that students must simply be given the confidence to experiment in the application of newly gained knowledge and to ask questions to promote individual thinking. In an effort to encourage discussion, I am always available to students. Although I arrange formal office hours, students are welcome to make appointments at other times.
One of my most dearly held beliefs is that it is the professor’s responsibility to prepare a student for a life-long learning ability. This goes far beyond simply staying current with one’s profession. Being an advocate of creative and critical thinking as a necessary skill to be a successful engineer, I know that many problems require the unique thought processes that only arises in a person with an exceptionally broad background who is constantly in contact with new information. This broad view of life and education as a continuous process is at the heart of being truly creative and also knowledgeable about society. Through classroom “side discussions” (often before class starts) I encourage students to be broadly aware of their world and the events that continue to shape our world and society.
I believe a professor should be sensitive to the background and preparation of the students. The way students are treated has a great influence on the students’ performance. I announce several times each term that my office and my time is available for their needs. These needs go far beyond clarifying lecture, homework, or exam materials. I openly invite students to discuss with me any problems they are having that impact on their success. This includes the development of learning and study skills, test taking skills, and dealing with problems such as test anxiety.
I believe that students deserve respect just as any other person, and there must be mutual respect between the students and me. I strive to earn students' respect in a variety of ways, given that respect cannot simply be awarded. I take a sincere interest in the well-being of students and interact with them on professional and social levels. I am convinced that social interaction with students develops a rapport with them and they are more comfortable when asking for assistance while in the classroom. In everything that I do, I want to be considered a fair and reasonable person.
I see my responsibility as a professor in the broadest sense. I have developed over a period of time, web-based materials for our department’s students that provide insight into the learning and forgetting process, the “keys to success” in engineering, study skills, homework myths and realities, successfully problem solving methodologies, problem solving traits, overcoming barriers to problem solving. I have developed and offered courses in creative and critical thinking with a high degree of student involvement and participation. I have developed and maintain a web site for students, teachers, and faculty world-wide to find information about the above topics from sites at dozens of colleges and universities.
My department recently selected me to chair our undergraduate program activities. In serving in this position, I have a unique responsibility to guide the department’s curriculum and teaching mission in the years ahead. In having a deep understanding of the recently revised ABET accreditation criteria, I see many opportunities to revise our curriculum to assure our graduating students have the abilities and skills that our program outcomes require. I see many opportunities to enrich our curriculum and at the same time have the learning experience our students are part of be seen as both interesting and fun. The changes being brought about by EC2000 represent a breath of fresh air that can enliven the classroom experience and stimulate our student’s learning.
I maintain high standards for my students. I frequently discuss the profession of engineering and the responsibilities of an engineer to society. I try to challenge them in ways that will benefit them and provide a sense of accomplishment. I hope that my teaching efforts have helped and continue to help produce engineers and related professionals who are valuable contributors to the profession and society.