E.W. “Bill” Tollner, Ph.D.

Professor of Agricultural Engineering

Dr. Tollner is a native of Maysville, Ky. and received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in Agricultural Engineering at the University of Kentucky. He completed his doctorate at Auburn University in 1980. He is, now, a Professor and and Graduate Coordinator at the University of Georgia. His overall area of research is to discover system descriptions of hydrologic systems with the overall goal of improving water resource management and watershed ecological health. Applications of control theory and advanced sensing techniques toward the improvement of post harvest quality of fruits and vegetables.

“I enjoy the variety of students, the diversity of students, the diversity of points of view of the faculty. The constant stimulation here will force you to stay young.”

A short conversation about engineering education with Dr. Tollner:

What do you like most about working in the College of Engineering at UGA?

I enjoy the variety of students, the diversity of students, the diversity of points of view of the faculty. The constant stimulation here will force you to stay young.

What do you find most interesting about the current generation of incoming students, and what do you, as a teacher, do to connect with them?

Well, I’ve been thinking about that. I’m fascinated with this whole concept of millennials, and I’m realizing I’m not one. But that’s all right. The thing that’s different from when I went to college, coming from a farming background particularly, is that I had experiences on top of experiences with machines, mechanisms, water and so on. So, when course content came along that talked about that, I just consumed it with eagerness. I developed a love for books and the content of them. The students now have come up in an era where you have to wear a seat belt anytime you ride anywhere; you have to have a helmet on when you ride your bicycle. In other words, we have so protected us and them from ourselves that the expectation is that we will be spoon-fed. Because that’s what we’ve been all our lives. And so, that puts a challenge into the classroom. And then another wrinkle you can put in there is the video generation and the fact that the attention span is now, what? Fifteen minutes or so? Well, classes still go for 50 minutes. So how do you recapture that attention? Well, I find it takes activities. Turn around and work on a problem together or even stand up and stretch. So that has been the practice or activity type that I’ve been conscious of as I develop my classes; I try to keep it interesting and stimulating some way – good pictures, good videos, meaningful things. I want to make sure, when I present material they have something they can relate it to and think about. So that’s been my biggest continuing challenge.

What have you observed in a classroom that puzzles, interests, or intrigues you about student learning?

The students this day and age expect to be able to get in front of a computer or even get on your phone and find any information out about anything. You can almost do that in many topical areas. But what we have to do in our classes is make sure you know how to order the information and focus it into a solution that’s valuable, not just one that’s trivial. And so— that’s a challenge. How do you do that? How do you take advantage of the technology but not let the technology completely control the process? And so that’s why I’m interested and active in the EETI Forums, I try to go to those meetings to gain whatever insight might be available on those topics. But you’ve got an expectation that you’re going to cover so much material and expose the students to so much material because the next course depends on it having been done. So you know where you want to get and you know you have 15 weeks to do it with two or three lectures a week, depending on the class schedule. You have to basically figure out, well, how can you plan each day so that you were sequentially walking towards the goal and not spinning your wheels? That’s how you have to do it, there’s no other way. For engineering courses, there are ABET expectations and there are the prerequisite expectations for advanced course. And so all you can do is be sequential and purposeful about it. I don’t mean to say “sequential” in such a way that learning happens in a straight line. It really doesn’t. In curricular design, there’s this fellow by the name of John Maxwell that talks about double loop learning where in one place you get exposed to a concept, but the concept at that point might mean very little until you, either in that course or in the next course, double back around and cover it again. Which is when you really learn it. I try to keep all this in mind when teaching.

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