Michael Yoder, Ph.D.
Dr. Yoder graduated from the University of Georgia with a B.S. in Zoology, an M.S. in Agricultural Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Biological & Agricultural Engineering. He, currently, is a senior lecturer at the University of Georgia with a specialty in Undergraduate Instruction.
“I have students who just love programming and get so excited to come to class. It’s so neat when students just are really passionate and you can tell they actually enjoy being there.”
A conversation with Dr. Yoder about Engineering Education:
What skills and qualities do you hope to instill in your students?
One of the things that stood out to me lately is just the idea of students being responsible. And what I mean by that is that they’re not just always thinking about themselves. I want them to be aware of whether or not what they’re doing can actually help their surroundings in some way, or are they just like making a mess? So when I teach the electric circuits class, I make a big deal constantly about the students not leaving a mess on the lab benches. If they get cables for their lab, put them back where you found them. I have a system and a method when I teach that class to help with the organization, and the students in my class really, they do that.
But that attitude of responsibility should extend everywhere. When I go into the coffee shop and I go over to the countertop where they have the cream and sugar, I’m aware of the fact that there’s going to be other people that are going to want to get to that same spot. So I’m looking out for those other people to accommodate them; not just hogging the whole area myself. So I’m really trying to drive home this concept of being responsible, being considerate of other people, being considerate of where you’re at. Not only not leaving a mess, but leaving it nicer than when you found it. I’m continually cleaning the dry erase boards in the classrooms even if I didn’t use them; I’ll get a rag and I put water on it and I clean the board so that when I leave that classroom, it’s in a better condition than when I got there.
At times, I think this is more important, actually, than some of the technical skills, and it has to do with social skills, how you get along with people, and how you treat people. I’m finding that these social skills concern me more than whether or not they completely understood the Thevenin circuit method. Driving in here today, I was thinking about what I could do as an assignment in the introduction to engineering class, 150 probably freshmen students, that would help and encourage them to be more responsible? And I don’t have an answer for that yet. And that’s not to say that I’m some shining example necessarily. There’s probably a lot of room for improvement in my life related to that also.
What have you observed in the classroom that puzzles, interests, or intrigues you about the way students learn?
Well, what is really bizarre is that you can have some classes of 19 students that are very, very quiet and not very interactive. And then other classes of 19 students, they’re very lively and very interactive, and it’s so different. And I talk about this with other faculty. Is it the time of day? Why there can be so much variation between different classes? And is it due to several of them? Is it possible that one really lively, vocal student, interactive, courageous maybe in some way can actually affect the attitude of the whole class? There’s so much variation, and I see such a wide variety, that I don’t know if I will ever really completely get that figured out.
People are complex. They really are. And I’ve realized that for years, but I’m realizing it more and more as I continue to think more about these things. Our emotions and feelings; how we were treated in the past; what we expect of people and what we think people expect of us create all these social layers of influence and the complexity is fascinating.
What are some important characteristics for a teacher to possess and how do you embody that in your teaching?
So one of the words that I most regret to use, and I’m going to say it here, but it’s just difficult for me actually to say it. It’s the word humility. Because if I even begin to think that I am humble, something’s going to happen, and it’s just going to flatten me out. Because, regardless of what I think I know and I understand, there’s going to be a mass of things out there that I have no clue about. So, it’s this idea that today I can learn something from a two-year-old, or somebody that’s 92 years old, regardless of where they’ve been in life, regardless of what they’ve experienced, I know that I can learn something from them.
And, if at any point in my life I begin to think I’ve got it all figured out, look out. I’ll be… this term we say, to be put in my place. So I know years ago, I don’t know like 20 years ago or something, I was often proud, obnoxious, rude, and inconsiderate and I would have been a terrible teacher. At that time, if someone had corrected me I probably would have snapped at them or made an excuse. You know, it’s like, oh, you made a mistake there. I just would have blown up. I realize now, I can make mistakes in the classroom, and I guess because I’m a little bit more humble than I used to be I realized that it’s okay and it can be a real learning experience. And now I truly am grateful any time a student points out a mistake. It helps me be relaxed and humble in the classroom and maybe the students can be a little more relaxed; I think that can lead to a lot more interaction, and I learn more on the process, and they learn more.
What do you like most about working at the College of Engineering at UGA?
I really appreciate the students in general. I can complain about them and sometimes they’re not responsible, but I’ve had just some great moments with my students. Already this semester in my computer programming MATLAB class, they’ve had a small coding assignment and some of the students are turning in code that better than what I showed them in class. It’s like, “Wow, you’re understanding this better than I am, and I’m teaching it!” I have students who just love programming and get so excited to come to class. It’s so neat when students just are really passionate and you can tell they actually enjoy being there. That’s cool.
And then also, I really, really appreciate the faculty here. I am continually learning so much from them. We’re going to have lunch today and just the different things that we talk about open my mind up to different ways to do things with teaching. And what I really appreciate about my job is that I actually have a lot of flexibility to do a lot of different things in the classroom. Now, I have certain course content that I need to do for each class, but other than that, if I want to come into the classroom with my light saber, I can do that. I can be really creative with my assignments and that is so cool to have a job where I can do that. So, I really am extremely grateful to have a job in the college of engineering. I like the faculty and where I’m working and the people here and the graduate students.