Q&A: Engineering professor named 2018 College Science Teacher of the Year

Courtesy Photo | Central Michigan University Brian DeJong mug.

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Brian DeJong became the first faculty member from the School of Engineering and Technology to win College Science Teacher of the Year.

The Michigan Science Teachers Association (MSTA) named DeJong its 2018 College Science Teacher of the Year. DeJong will accept the award at the MSTA Conference in March. 

The last professor from Central Michigan University to win this award was Geography and Environmental Studies Department Chair Mark Francek in 2016.

DeJong has been teaching at CMU since 2007. He teaches the freshman-level introduction class, where students design and race cardboard boats, a sophomore-level engineering statics class and a junior-level mechatronics class, where students build small robots. DeJong was nominated by a student.

DeJong also advises the year-long senior design capstone, which is meant to simulate a job. Students have a customer for whom they must design a product or solution. This year, students are working to design a solution for Ford Motor Co.

Central Michigan Life spoke with DeJong to discuss his award and his experience as a teacher.

CM Life: How will winning this award affect your teaching?

DeJong: I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I was very honored by it and very humbled by it. I am also very affirmed by it. It confirms that what I’m doing is good and effective. It’s always nice to receive recognition for the work I do.

What happened when you found out you won?

The (MSTA) sent the notification of the award to the department before they sent it to me. At one of our department meetings, they had a surprise cake and celebration for me. I went to the meeting and was embarrassed and surprised to find out that I got the award. We found out just before the holidays, so it took a while for the news to spread.

Why did you choose engineering? Why did you decide to teach?

My dad is an engineer, (so) I grew up approaching things from an engineering perspective. I also like math and solving problems. That’s some of what engineers do. I’ve always liked teaching and explaining things. I was open to doing other things when I went to graduate school, but my main goal was always to be a professor.

What is your favorite course to teach?

My favorite is statics. It’s the first real mechanical engineering course. In statics, we get down and dirty with theory. We take all the stuff students have learned in calculus and physics and we get to implement it. All we do in that course is solve example after example. It’s during that semester when, for most students, the lightbulb goes off. Things finally make sense and they decide to do more and think bigger. It’s where students take ownership of their engineering education and find out how useful and fun it can be.

Besides teaching, how else do you spend your time?

I do research in robotics. As a mechanical engineer, I am more focused on how they move and how humans interact with them — how they control them. I’m not doing much research on the electronics or programming side. 

I also do research in engineering education, mainly how to better teach engineering both at the collegiate and the high school levels. There’s a strong push with the next generation science standards to teach engineering earlier. 

What are your favorite memories of teaching at CMU? 

The boat race is always a blast. Students are so gung-ho about it.

Last year, in the mechatronics course, we did a demonstration with 14 groups and 14 robots. There was a lot of excitement about it. It was great to see the cool things the students did with their robots.

I’ve had students, after graduating, get good jobs or get into good graduate schools and they send me thank you notes. It’s very heartwarming to know that I helped them in some way.