By Lauren Ingeno
When it comes to teaching electromagnetics, Professor Ergun Simsek likes to show before he tells.
Theoretical concepts — those complicated equations on the blackboard — are fundamental to any engineering course. But demonstrations are what stay engrained in a student’s mind long after he or she takes a final exam.
“After summer break I ask my students, ‘What do you remember?’ And they don’t remember all of those equations. They don’t remember the difficult physics. But they definitely remember the experiments,” said Dr. Simsek, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Dr. Simsek’s experience-driven teaching philosophy has landed him among 73 of the nation’s “most innovative, young engineering educators,” chosen by the National Academy of Engineering. He will represent GW at the NAE’s 2013 Frontiers of Engineering Education symposium in Irvine, Calif., from Oct. 27 to 30.
At the event, professors from the country’s top engineering schools will be able to learn new teaching techniques, listen to keynote speakers and collaborate with one another in order to better prepare the next generation of engineers.
“It is traditional that the training of Ph.D. students heavily emphasizes research and unfortunately often glosses over their role as future educators,” said Stephen W. Director, chair of the Frontiers of Engineering Education advisory committee. “FOEE helps to address this imbalance by supporting faculty as they learn about and use evidence-based practices in the design and implementation of innovative courses and curricula.”
Dr. Simsek joined the GW faculty in 2011, after teaching at Harvard University and Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. He is also the director of the GW WavesLab, a group of electrical engineers and physicists who research the optical phenomena associated with nanoscale materials.
But his real passions, Dr. Simsek said, are teaching and finding new ways to connect with his students.
Last week, for instance, Dr. Simsek was teaching reflection and transmissions in his “Fields and Waves I” course. He said he knows learning the mathematical equations can be “exhausting.” So instead of starting with the theoretical part, he begins class by asking, “Do you know how your iPhone works?” He goes on to show how when you place your finger on the screen, it blocks or reflects some of the waves.
“When I tell them the iPhone bit in the beginning, they get interested in the idea,” Dr. Simsek said. “Then we go on to some difficult math. At the end, they become really proud of what they learned.”
Dr. Simsek also emphasized his attempts to use “all available tools,” such as YouTube videos, to increase his students’ understanding of electromagnetics.
And his techniques are paying off. Mona Zaghloul, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, nominated Dr. Simsek for the Frontiers of Engineering Education symposium. She said Dr. Simsek always receives glowing evaluations from his students at the end of each semester.
“He teaches very difficult material, but apparently he makes it very easy for his students,” Dr. Zaghloul said. “I thought he was the perfect person to nominate [for the symposium]. He’s a young, energetic faculty member, and the students love him.
Last year, students voted Dr. Simsek the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s “2013 Professor of the Year.”
Dr. Simsek insists that he has just as much to learn from his students as they do from him.
“Teaching and learning is a two-way thing. It should be intertwined,” he said.
He said he is most looking forward to meeting his peers at the symposium, and he hopes to come away with new teaching techniques that he can implement in his own classroom.