Siddharth Savadatti, Ph.D.
Dr. Siddharth Savadatti received his PhD in Computational Mechanics from North Carolina State University in 2011 and has since been on the faculty of the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia. He teaches mechanics and numerical methods courses such as Statics, Fluid Mechanics, Programming, Numerical Methods for Engineers and Finite Element Analysis. In addition to traditional face-to-face classes, he has designed and taught courses in fully online and completely flipped formats.
“I believe that the most important quality we can instill in our students is to give them the confidence that they can learn by themselves”
A short conversation about engineering education with Dr. Savadatti:
What do you like most about working in the College of Engineering at UGA?
What is great about working in the College of Engineering is the open and collaborative atmosphere that exists amongst faculty, amongst students and between faculty and students. Without rigid demarcations between various programs, the college feels like a single unit with all students/faculty operating in the same space, freely exchanging ideas and helping each other out. Interactions between students and faculty are open and informal with a healthy dose of respect on both sides.
What skills and qualities do you hope to instill in your students?
I believe that the most important quality we can instill in our students is the confidence that they can learn anything by themselves. You do not need a university, you do not need a teacher to learn something – teachers and universities might make learning a bit easier, but they are not really necessary and will not always be available.
In today’s world, information is freely and abundantly available. But to be able to construct one’s own knowledge from this information requires first and foremost the confidence that one can do it, followed by the effort of actually doing it. Most students are willing to put in the effort, but they lack the initial confidence necessary to undertake the task of self-learning. ‘I didn’t take that course’, ‘my teacher didn’t cover this’ etc. are common refrains that reveal the lack of confidence in self-directed learning.
Eventually students will leave the formalized educational setting of a university where everything is prearranged to facilitate learning but they will be expected to continue learning new things and develop new skills. The lack of confidence in one’s ability to figure something out, the fear that something is too complex to be learnt by oneself is a major hurdle to lifelong learning.
What role do you see learning technologies play in Engineering Education?
I see learning technologies playing a major role in providing personalized instruction that caters to each student’s unique learning needs. In the recent past, technology has been used mainly to reach larger and larger number of students more affordably (massive open online courses or MOOCs being a prime example) but this has been at the cost of individualized instruction. In the coming future, I believe the focus will shift to using learning technologies to reach each individual student more effectively.
Every student is different and learns differently. The most effective instruction would be one-on-one, where the teacher is attuned to the individual needs of a student and models his/her instruction to meet those needs. While such individualized instruction for every student is not practical in a traditional face-to-face class, technology can make it viable to a large extent.
Imagine multiple learning modules developed with the aid of technology (interactive reading materials, videos, animations, simulations etc.) that cover a single topic in multiple ways. Imagine students being able to choose the modules that best fit their learning needs. I am not suggesting a massive bank of resources presented to each student who is then left to fend for themselves (the internet already exists) or an online class with massive resources but minimal interaction with the instructor. I am talking about the development of resources that will make individualized instruction possible. The teacher will still be around to gauge needs and guide the choice of resources for every student and will be there to step in when a resource is not quite adequate (no number of resources will be enough to cover every students’ every need).
What are some important characteristics for a teacher to possess and how do you embody that in your teaching?
In my view, the most important characteristic for a teacher to possess is the ability to know when and by how much to guide each individual student. If guidance is not given when needed, it stunts learning; if it is given when not needed, it prevents the deep understanding that can only be obtained through self-inquiry and discovery. Similarly too little guidance can frustrate the student to the point of quitting and too much will make students dependent on a teacher for learning and prevent them from developing the skills necessary for self-learning. It is a fine balance.
Teachers make the process of learning easier by providing the scaffolding necessary for students to move from their current level of knowledge to a new, higher level. Teachers essentially provide the stairs that make moving to a much higher place possible by negotiating multiple smaller steps. To stretch this analogy further, teachers need to know how high each step should be – each should be small enough to be climbable, but large enough so that one reaches the desired level in a reasonable number of steps and does not forget the ability to climb in the first place.
Most of my classes are now taught in a flipped format that allows students to spend all their class time working on problems with help available from the TAs and me. This has allowed me to look at each and every student’s work in class, ask them individualized questions to gauge their understanding and provide very specific feedback based on their current level of knowledge.
Patience and an ability to remember what it was like when they were students themselves are other important characteristics for teachers to possess. I seldom tire of teaching the same thing (even to the same student) multiple times and in multiple different ways. I think I remember the struggles I faced as a student understanding new concepts and try to teach in a way that eases these struggles for my students.
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