2017 Silver Circle winner Jamison Szwalek

Jamison Szwalek

“Every semester, I do something different, challenge myself to come up with projects and problem ideas,” says Jamison Szwalek. (Photo: Jenny Fontaine)

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Since 1966, the Silver Circle Award has been presented to some of UIC’s best teachers. Winners, who are honored at their college commencements, receive $500 and their names join a long list of distinguished colleagues. But what makes the award especially meaningful is its selection committee: the graduating seniors.

Jamison Szwalek and her two children make a lot of pancakes. So many, in fact, that she was inspired to turn it into a meaningful learning experience — for her students.

“We’re finishing up making machines that flip pancakes,” Szwalek, clinical assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said about her “Introduction to Engineering Design” classes.

In the class, freshmen practice working with teams to complete other projects and problems while learning how to put their engineering knowledge to use.

“Along the way, they figure out what works and doesn’t work,” Szwalek explained, adding that students sketch, design, use tools, build machines and actively problem-solve.

“They’re learning quite a bit,” she said.

Szwalek carries that teaching style, learning by doing, into other courses, too. This semester, she’s also instructing “Theory of Computer-Aided Design,” where students are redesigning wrenches. Her past classes cover dynamics, vibrations and machine design.

“The problems we solve in class allow [students] to use the new material we learn. So I introduce new concepts and use lots of examples, solve a lot of problems, bring in the real-world application through projects and give them lots of opportunities to practice with homework,” she said. “It’s more exciting.”

Undergrads couldn’t agree more. They’ve selected Szwalek, who joined the university in 2014, to receive a Silver Circle Award this year, her first teaching recognition.

“Every semester, I do something different, challenge myself to come up with projects and problem ideas. I spend a lot of time making new things, trying to make things better, so I was really happy all of that effort paid off,” she said.

She’ll continue doing her best for students.

“I still want to do more, make it better,” she said. “That’s part of engineering. No matter what you have done, you always think it can be better.”

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