Phillip Wankat: Teaching How to Teach

Phil WankatPhillip Wankat has worked at Purdue University since 1970. While doing traditional technical research in chemical separation processes, he sensed the need to learn how to teach better and pursued a master’s degree in education. He has since become passionate about teaching the next generation to teach and preparing them for faculty careers. His book Teaching Engineering is representative of his life’s work. While retaining a half-time appointment in Chemical Engineering, he has been a vital member of Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education since its inception in 2004.

The profile below was authored by Geoffrey Herman, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, based on an interview with Dr. Wankat in 2014.

Dr. Phillip Wankat
Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and Engineering Education
Purdue University

Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, Princeton University, 1970
M.S., Education, Purdue University, 1982
B.S., Chemical Engineering, Purdue University, 1966

Learning about teaching

When I started at Purdue in 1970, I had no training in how to teach, which was, unfortunately, normal. My sole training was sitting in the lectures of a fluids course taught by another faculty member while I taught a recitation section. After teaching my first course on my own, my ratings were mediocre, which was disappointing. Motivated by this disappointment, I flipped through the Purdue course catalog and found a course on educational psychology for college teachers. While faculty were encouraged to take the course, I was one of only three who took it – all the other students were graduate students in education or psychology. The course was revelatory, though, as I discovered that there was a lot more one could do than just lecture in the classroom.

The course was extremely practical. I was able to complete projects that related to my chemical engineering courses. I learned about programmed instruction, mastery learning, discussion sections, how to construct tests, and more. The course was basically a general overview of teaching methods and techniques, plus a little bit of theory. Based on what I had learned in the course, I implemented mastery learning in my course on chemical separations. I had found that the students who most needed help often did not seek it out. I liked that mastery learning forced those students to get the help they needed. My efforts in the course led to my first engineering education publication at the third Frontiers in Education conference in 1973.

Inspired by the teaching course, and after encountering a very troubled student that I did not know how to help, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in the Education Department. I applied to the College of Education and took courses both in counseling and educational psychology. I was accepted into the degree program, but back then, Purdue University had a policy against allowing professors to get additional degrees. The Dean of the Graduate School denied my admissions and tried to convince me of the error of my ways. After a few attempts to persuade the dean to waive the policy, I enlisted the support of my department head and my dean. Ultimately, the Dean of the Graduate School and Provost couldn’t turn down my request without saying that improving teaching and advising were not important or that the courses from our university would not be helpful. They let me pursue the degree, saying “You can do this, but this is not a precedent.”

Teaching about teaching

After I earned my master’s degree in education, I decided it was time to give back. We teach Ph.D. students how to do research, so we also ought to teach them how to teach. I proposed to teach a course on teaching for engineering students to my department head. I had to be careful to propose the course as a teaching overload, otherwise the idea would not have flown. After trying to talk me out of the idea, my department head approved the course and connected me with Frank Oreovicz, who had recently been hired in the department as a communication specialist.

The collaboration with Frank worked out extremely well. We co-taught the course on teaching engineering for over 20 years, until Frank retired. Frank and I also co-wrote a column on teaching engineering for the American Society for Engineering Education’s Prism magazine for eight years. Frank’s and my efforts culminated in the book Teaching Engineering, which I think has been my single biggest contribution to the engineering education community.

[Note: The 2nd edition of Teaching Engineering was published in 2016.]

Aside from my collaborations with Frank, I also wrote the book The Effective, Efficient Professor: Teaching, Scholarship, and Service, to help new faculty improve their efficiency and time management skills. I know it sounds backwards, but I always tell students that if you take a teaching course as a Ph.D. student, it will probably do more to help you get started quickly in your research as an assistant professor than anything else. I argue that the more you know about teaching, the less time you waste trying to figure it out. Frank and I did a follow-up study in 2005 on students who had taken the teaching course, and they uniformly thought that anybody going into academics should be required to take a similar course.

Since we were both in chemical engineering, Rich Felder and I crossed paths at meetings of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE), before either of us became heavily involved in engineering education. As we both became invested in engineering education, we supported each other’s work. He started doing teaching workshops at North Carolina State, and I conducted other workshops. Rich, Dendy Sloan, and I also held the first workshop on teaching at the AIChE summer school. I still conduct workshops, but not nearly as much as others like Rich, Karl Smith, and Rebecca Brent .

Changing the minds of technical researchers

My advice to those who want to make an impact in engineering education is to learn how to teach. If you are going to do research in engineering education, people are going to look at how good a teacher you are to see whether they should trust your research. If you are a lousy teacher, others are going to basically say that your research means nothing.

Even if you are not an engineering education researcher, you can still make an impact. If you can bring in new teaching methods, teach well, and have a good reputation in technical research, you will have more clout with most engineering professors than those who do only engineering education research. This clout is especially important with people who are technically oriented in their research, which is the majority of professors.

Many technical engineering research faculty are chauvinistic. They think that nobody knows what it’s like to teach engineering except engineering professors. They also don’t respect engineering education research. Technical faculty often don’t understand the value of educational research and they think that it is easy, mainly because they haven’t tried to do it. They don’t know how hard it is to publish or get a grant from the National Science Foundation in engineering education. Those who have tried, though, realize that there is value and rigor in engineering education research. But most professors in technical departments haven’t tried to play the game.

For those who do engineering education research, I think that it is critical for them to collaborate with professors in standard technical departments who do standard technical research. Work with them on improving their classes and courses. Work with them on writing papers. When they observe what you are doing, they will come to respect what you do.

If you want evidence of this phenomenon, try giving a workshop on teaching engineering without an engineer on the teaching team. It just doesn’t work. If there’s an engineer on the team who can say, “These people are all right, they know what they are talking about and can help,” it works!

I think that excelling at technical research while pursuing excellence in your teaching is another path for making an impact. I was successful in advancing my career through my technical research in separation processes. As long as I kept doing the technical research that my department wanted me to do, I could do anything I wanted in engineering education on top of it. The trick to maintaining both interests was finding ways to combine them. For example, I taught my course on separations and wrote the textbook.

The importance of being stubborn

Most people don’t think of me as being stubborn, but I am. I am easy to get along with on a lot of things, especially if they do not impact what I consider important. But when something impacts something that is really important, then I become stubborn. I think that both teaching and research are important, but teaching is number one. Rich Felder and I have talked about this, and neither of us feels that we fit well into our universities . We stick out like sore thumbs, because most of academia does not think that teaching is number one. But Dave Kessler, the man who preceded me as the head of Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary Engineering, once told me that, “Just because most of the academic world doesn’t agree with you, it does not mean that you are wrong.”

Reflecting on my career, I want to tell the next generation, “Don’t give up!” There is movement. More people are using active learning. More people are learning to teach. I think that we are finally getting to the point where faculty members are learning to teach. There will still be resistance, but you need to believe that you are doing the right thing and keep going. If you believe that you are doing the right thing, it will be much easier to keep going.

Challenges for the next generation

I don’t think up-and-coming engineering education researchers can have the careers that Rich Felder and I had. I joined ASEE in 1972. Back then, nobody thought of themselves as rigorous researchers in engineering education. The idea almost didn’t even exist. Nobody was doing qualitative research. Most of us did classroom research, although we did not know to call it that, and were able to grow in rigor as the field grew.

Today, you are stepping into a field that has already arrived in terms of rigor. You cannot take baby steps anymore. If you want to publish in the Journal of Engineering Education or get a grant from the National Science Foundation, you have to know the right language and know how to do the research. You have to pay the price of taking the education courses. If you want to excel at engineering education research, I don’t think you can do technical research. If you do technical research, you will probably need to collaborate on your engineering education research to be successful.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Wankat recalls the effort he had to make to pursue his interest in improving his teaching. How does this compare to your own experience with entering teaching? Were you provided with training? Did you pursue it yourself? What could you do in your setting to help new faculty learn about teaching?
  • Dr. Wankat suggests that the way to maintain interests in both technical research and engineering education is to find ways to combine them. Do you agree? Have you found ways to combine multiple interests?

Photo provided by Dr. Wankat.