Kun Yao, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer in Electrical Engineering
Dr. Yao received the B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physical electronics from Peking University, Beijing, China, in 2002 and 2008, respectively. From 2008 to 2012, He worked at the University of New Orleans and the University of Georgia as a Postdoctoral Researcher. In 2013, he joined the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia as a lecturer, as well as the manager of the cleanroom core facility. He is also affiliated with the Engineering Education Transformational Institute and the New Materials Institute.
“The most important thing is to make the student self-motivated. They need to keep a certain curiosity about the world.”
A short conversation with Dr. Yao:
What are the biggest challenges facing society today, and what is the role of engineering educators to address them?
I think the three biggest issues are probably energy, environment, and health, which are related to the survival of human beings. As an engineering educator, to address them, I think the first step is that we show the knowledge that exists in the books. Meanwhile we should help students keep an open mind, to look at what is happening around us, and to think about what we can do. Here the most important thing is to make the student self-motivated. They need to keep a certain curiosity about the world, and to realize what they themselves really want to do. Engineers always try to solve problems. Some problems are obviously there, and we know how to get there. However, there are some problems we don’t know how to solve – We need to explore. As an educator, we need to make the students realize that there are all kinds of possibilities. The knowledge is not only something you read in the book, it is around us in the real world. So keep an eye out for new information, cultivate curiosity, and have ambition and belief that “I can do it”. The motivation of study isn’t to just graduate and get a job, but also realize it’s possible for us to do something to change the world a little bit and then hopefully make it better.
What role do you see learning technologies play in Engineering Education?
Learning technology is a very new development. 20 or 30 years ago, when we were in the school, we just had books, and the conversation between the educators and the students would only happen in the class. Sometimes if we needed to find a book in the library, maybe there were only 10 copies and they were all checked out. It was not so easy to get the resources. Nowadays internet is widely used and there is online information everywhere. As long as we want to learn, we can learn almost everything by ourselves, since we have YouTube videos, Wikipedia, and the like. There is not a big barrier for us to reach new information. Thus, it is much easier to make learning a lifelong activity which doesn’t only happen in school. Therefore, learning technology, of course, plays a very positive role. As a teacher, I’m also thinking about what I can do with all this new technology, because there are a lot of good tools to help students study. To make the teaching and learning more efficient and more interesting, I’m also learning and exploring whether there are any new things I can use in my class. For example, in my class I’ve tried to see whether iPads or smart devices can help the students study. Sometimes I also play YouTube videos in my class, but I think there are many other things we can do. Each of us needs to keep our mind open and explore.
What role does preparing students for engineering practice play in your teaching?
Most of my classes are related to electronic engineering. Electrical engineering students need both critical thinking and hands-on skills, since a lot of work is involved in both software skills and hardware skills. Maybe a student can understand everything in the book, calculate the problems very well, and even get perfect sores on the exams, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they could solve practical problems. So we have lab sessions in these classes, where the students have more practice working on problems they might encounter in the real world. Further, I encourage them to develop some of their own ideas, to create new projects that could solve real world problems, not only working on problems I assign for them to study. I believe the hands-on training gives students the flexibility to adapt and find creative solutions. Having the students attempt real world problems in a project based learning environment improves their ability, and it also becomes a big confidence boost.
What skills and qualities do you hope to instill in your students?
I think it’s kind of easier to consider the skills part because it’s related to a lot of software and hardware tools. But the qualities are probably more important, because that is related to how you think of the problem; how you see the world. So actually, as a teacher I think there are three different levels for teaching and learning. The first level, is providing the information that is in the book, which is the knowledge and the skills that we already know. The second level, is helping the students develop the ability for self-learning, because we can never show them everything. There are always new things coming out, so they need to have the ability to learn by themselves. The third level, students need to be able to formulate new problems for other people or for themselves to solve. Maybe It’s not any problem that is already existing, because we don’t know what the future looks like. So people need to be able to create new problems and new knowledge to make us move forward, to make the world become better. Therefore, we need to be able to understand what is known by people in previous years, we need to have the ability to learn new things on our own, and finally we need to have curiosity and ambitions for the future so we can create new knowledge and solve new problems.