A hands-on approach to learning

Michael Scott and students

“I’m a huge believer that education should be student-centered and project-based,” says Michael Scott, center. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

The Award for Excellence in Teaching, a $5,000 salary increase, is UIC’s only peer-selected teaching award. Winners are chosen by those who received the award in past years.

What’s important is not how good a teacher you are, but how much your students learn.

That’s Michael J. Scott’s philosophy of teaching in a nutshell.

“I’m a huge believer that education should be student-centered and project-based,” says Scott, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and bioengineering.

“You learn things by doing them rather than by being told how to do them.”

The courses he teaches most often are Interdisciplinary Product Development, for seniors, and Introduction to Engineering Design and Graphics, for sophomores.

“I structure both around long-term significant team projects,” he says.

The senior course combines engineering students with MBA candidates.

“They have a client they work for who has a problem of interest to them and us,” Scott says.

“For the first half of the year, they identify problems worth solving. For the second half, they develop solutions to the problems.”

As for the sophomores, who are students in engineering or graphic design, “they learn to build devices that perform certain functions,” Scott says.

Student teams come up with a design, build a model and test it. Then they refine the design, build a final version and test it again.

Scott’s undergraduate degree, from Harvard, is in philosophy, a fact many find surprising.

But he believes the philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries would be engineers today.

“Moving from philosophy to engineering was not as big a step as it sounds,” he says. “I started in math, and Harvard had a rather mathematical philosophy department.”

Scott also teaches a completely different discipline — yoga.

His weekly class is attended mostly by faculty and students from the College of Engineering, although it’s open to all.

When he was a student at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned a master’s and Ph.D., Scott’s back wouldn’t allow him to sit comfortably through a lecture.

“I’d sit for five minutes, stand for five minutes,” he says. “I’d lie on the floor if the professor would let me.”

Yoga gave him the relief he needed.

“I decided I’d better do it for the rest of my life, and one way is to teach it.”

Scott started his yoga classes at Caltech and continued after joining UIC in 2000.

“So now I teach yoga, and my back is totally fine, thank you,” he says.

Other Award for Excellence in Teaching winners

Promoting social justice, human rights: Mark Mattaini

Recruiting teachers to high-need schools: Carole Mitchener

Raising the bar for ‘dream’ students: Luigi Salerni

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