Mark Trudgen, Ph.D.
Dr. Trudgen is a lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering. He has published in the area of automatic control systems. His research interests include undergraduate laboratory experience, remote labs, and advancing control theory in undergraduates.
“There really are so many opportunities to connect the engineering department to all of these other things going on around campus and that’s very exciting.”
A short conversation about engineering education with Dr. Trudgen:
What excites you about educating engineers in the 21st century?
Technology is the first word that I’m going to bring up because we’re living in an age, thanks to good engineering, that the smartphone you’re recording me with can be used to find any information on any engineering subject. Within a matter of 0.03 seconds, you can find 183,000 articles on any given topic. How do we incorporate this technology without losing the discipline of thinking for yourself? This is something I have definitely seen getting lost as far as good engineering thought is concerned. It used to be that knowledge was transferred from one to another, but nowadays, everyone is literate, everyone has passed exams, everyone has access to technology, and everyone has a computer in front of them. Yet, there are still plenty of students that have no clue how to use it effectively. When you consider the fact that technology is going to keep exponentially increasing, there is a real need for the discipline to realize what is good knowledge and what is not. It’s also important for students to realize that there is a lot of creativity and analysis that engineers have to do that simply can’t be substituted with a google search.
The best way to use the Internet, as I see it, is as a sensor. You’re able to gather additional information with it and become inspired, but it is still going to always come back to the engineer making decisions and thinking through the process. So as a teacher, how do I balance the best of both worlds? We’ve had a long history of teaching engineering, but yet at the same time, knowledge is now available like it’s never been before. How do I do all that? When a student graduates and they go work somewhere, they need to have learned how to learn on their own, they need to have had exposure to technology, and they need to know-how to figure things out. It feels like it’s harder to teach that.
The critical thinking is becoming so much more important because there’s so much information out there. I’m not discouraging it, but I’m just saying if you find someone else’s design, that’s great; now how do you apply it in a new context? 20 years ago, you’d either take the lecture notes or take the textbook, and you’d have to think about it and then say, “How do I take this and then use these fundamental tools to go where I need to go?” Now the question has become “How do I take this massive amount of material that people have posted, filter it, sift through it, figure out what is valuable and then figure out how to adapt that to the problem that I’m working on?” What I see all too often is students just keep searching and searching and searching and searching, when the answer is already there; they just need to think through it. I feel like this is exciting in the sense of the fundamental practices aren’t going to change, but our approach to teaching may very well need to.
What do you like most about working here at the college of engineering at the University of Georgia?
I think my favorite thing about UGA is that it’s upcoming and growing; that’s one of the reasons why I chose to a do a PhD here. There are pros and cons to that, certainly, but it is really great in the sense that we have a medical school, we have a music college, we have a vet school; we have all the standard science departments like biology, physics, chemistry and so on. We’re in a very different position than a lot of other universities in that we have all of these great resources to tap into on campus. UGA has a great athletic program. Do we have a program with a kinesiology department in cooperation with football or something? We should. Maybe engineers field out how to build some new robot. For example, I’ve seen at other universities, a project where engineering students built this tackle bot so instead of tackling other players at practice, they tackle the robot which could reduce incidences of injury. We also have this incubator for small businesses and great ideas to develop. There really are so many opportunities to connect the engineering department to all of these other things going on around campus and this prospect is very exciting.
What do you find most interesting about the current generation of incoming students, and how do you connect with them as a teacher?
These are two very different questions, in my mind. With respect to the first question there is something in the literature that’s referred to as the shade tree mechanic. In my father’s generation, engineers were shade tree mechanics in that they took stuff apart; they built with their hands; they were curious and wanted to know how things worked. Nowadays, there is still a lot of curiosity, but there is a lot less hands-on experience. It’s not necessarily the students’ fault because so much of what we interact with is already prepackaged. You can get on the Internet and you can buy whatever you want, and it will get shipped to you wherever you are. So, there’s a different need. The curiosity of wanting to learn how things work is there and can still be channeled, it just occurs in a different way.
The students are so immersed in the digital world in some senses that they’ve forgotten about the analog world. But, fundamentally everything comes back to analog: we take the analog world, we digitize it, we use a computer to transform it or modify it in some way–image processing, signal processing, and so on, and then that’s returned back to the analog world. There’s kind of a disconnect between reality and technology and I can see how that’s changed. Being a relatively new and younger faculty, I grew up in the beginning of the digital age, but I’m very thankful to have had a very hands-on childhood and so this generational difference is very interesting.
As far as connecting with the current generation of students, as with anything in life, I feel that when you know yourself— you know what your strengths are, you know what your weakness are – you are better equipped to connect with others. It’s been fascinating to see what the younger generations value and what they’re interested in. This generation has been raised on this idea of saving the world. I agree that there are things in the world that need to change, but the whole idea of saving the world is just a little too extreme for me. I appreciate the desire to serve others and that’s what I take away from that. I think it’s great to serve others, especially those who are underprivileged, and I totally agree with that.
As an engineer you’re constantly seeking to say, “Okay, I know enough to be dangerous; let’s go do something.” And so with the global perspective in the sense of being more connected to the entire world and seeing greater problems, my challenge then is to connect with this generation. I have fun with that, and I think that’s good, and when I hear, “save the world,” I counter that with, “Change your world.” Change what’s going on around you. That will be enough because that’s your world. If you want to change your world, change what happens between your two ears. Your body has five senses; change the world around you, and then you’ll see the world start to change. And so, as a teacher there is a tricky balance of not wanting to put the fire out, but also remembering, a controlled burn is a controlled burn. It needs to burn in a certain location, and it will be super effective and it will do great things.
What are some important characteristics for a teacher to possess and how do you embody that in your teaching?
Discipline is the first word that comes to my mind. I try to set high goals. If your goal is to just appease the students and hold their hand and say, “Oh, Johnny just has so much going on in his life, and oh, let’s cancel the quiz and do this and that,” you’re really hurting them. And so, my goal is to have high standards.
That’s not always pleasant because you don’t make friends that way, and you can get complaining and grumbling and things like that. But I’ll tell you what, it’s so much more rewarding at the end of the semester when you look around and the students really know the material and you know that they’ve had to really dig and develop the skills they now have. Even if they’re not going to use your exact course in their career, you know you’ve been teaching them how to learn. That’s so much more rewarding.
It’s okay that there are going to be C+ students. It’s okay that there are going to be students who struggle. It’s okay that you’re going to have to mark them off on things when you know that they’re trying hard. If they came here expecting to be the same exact person in four years, then we need to let them know that they need to change their goals.
I really think I’m in a unique position just in the sense that I’m younger and I try to be very approachable and very personable. I really try to listen to the students, but also with that I try to hear where I need to push them. When a student asks a question, my first thought is, how do I get to the heart of it? The answer is not to reply with the answer; the answer is to ask another question. That forces them to think. That’s my job is to force people to think. Engineers get paid to think. If you have all of your frameworks set up, all of your questions and everything like that in a box, then you’re going to find out that all your students are going to do is go figure out how to jump in the box. And two months later, they’re going to forget everything. But there is the old adage of whoever does the work does the learning. And so, my goal is for the students to work. Unfortunately, that’s hard and it takes discipline and it takes dedication.
One of my other big goals is also to inspire students and help them grow and develop. It’s silly to think that students have it all figured out, “Oh, they’re here just to learn circuits.” They’re here to see a role model, too, because if you’re just this unapproachable, uninviting engineer, they’re going to assume that that is how engineers are. So I really try to model the behavior I want my students to learn. That can be difficult because then I have to make sure I show up every day and be the best that I am.