My Teaching Philosophy

by Samuel A. Acuña, Ph.D.
Updated: Spring 2023

My goal is to be an outstanding and sought-after teacher, whose courses are engaging and exciting and whose students develop a strong intuitive and analytical understanding of the material.

When students enter my classroom, there is music playing. It may sound trivial, but it creates a more relaxed environment than a traditional engineering classroom. It is also a way to engage my students—during each lesson I recruit a student to provide a playlist of music for the ten minutes before the next class starts. I have found this simple activity teaches us about each other and makes me more accessible as an instructor. I want my students to live a whole and balanced life and not spend their life solely in pursuit of academic success, so I set an example of that for them each day. I am always bringing my personality into the classroom like this, though soon I will figure out how incorporate my electric guitar as well.

My Experience

My teaching is best suited towards project-based learning involving semester-long design projects in multidisciplinary teams. Most of my teaching experience comes from teaching a project-based senior-level product design course in the Mechanical Engineering department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which I co-taught with two adjuncts who worked full-time at a local product design firm. Over four years, I taught over 150 students about Design Thinking methodologies to seniorlevel mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and business school students, culminating in a semester-long design project. I framed this project as a realistic scenario: students act as a design consulting firm pitching a viable and feasible design to corporate clients. I play the role of the client, who provides some vague initial design constraints (last year I asked for a sit-to-stand desk adaptor), and then, throughout the semester, the students conduct discovery research to reframe the design to meet specific user-needs. By the end of the semester, competing teams present their business pitch and final prototype (sometimes in front of actual corporate representatives visiting for the day). The student teams often far exceed the minimum requirements because they like the competitive aspect of the final project. Student reviews for this course have been stellar, consistently ranking me high in my ability to explain complex materials (3.94 out of 5) and my presentation skills (4.19 out of 5). But the highest mark I receive has always been for my enthusiasm towards teaching (4.56 out of 5). Last year, one student review said, “He is a certainly a great lecturer who is extremely passionate!”

Good teaching comes from years of trial and error, which I believe requires a growth mindset. To cultivate my own, I have a systematic and ongoing process of self-evaluation and improvement beyond the routine end-of-semester surveys. I believe if students aren’t learning the material, then I must be teaching it wrong. Most of these self-assessment strategies I learned during a 14-week professional development course called Teaching in Science and Engineering, one of several that I have taken so far. At the end of each lesson, I conduct a short formative assessment—sometimes I have students complete a three-question survey and other times I have them write out a minute-paper to explain what they do and do not understand. To test how well my teaching was demonstrated in student learning, I designed a biomechanics course homework intervention to improve student final exam scores. From this intervention, I found that active learning activities contributed to higher exam scores. I plan to continue developing my teaching through workshops and courses as well, especially to learn how to incorporate new and emerging teaching technology into my classroom (if students are going to have their phones out, might as well try to make them useful!).

Teaching the Art and Science of Engineering

Design and engineering is about both technical skill and an ever-elusive “eye” for good and bad design that is hard to teach directly. In order to accomplish student learning in both of these areas, I do four things.

First, I focus on building their capacity to “see” good design in the real world. At the start of each class, I spend a moment on “cool stuff/crappy stuff.” A volunteer submits one slide highlighting a product they have encountered recently and explains to the class why it is well designed (i.e., “cool”) or why it is poorly designed (i.e., “crappy”). Students love this activity, even though I never grade it and I only use volunteers; each semester begins with one student hesitantly raising their hand when I ask for volunteers and ends with many students being disappointed that they cannot all be picked. The increasing depth of their analysis over the course of the semester is also impressive, moving from their mere noticing unique designs to their applying and evaluating each design using the principles we learn in class.

Second, I use active learning techniques. I do this not only because pedagogical research confirms that students learn better this way [1], but also because it is more compatible with my personal classroom style. A typical lesson would start off with a quick review of a tough homework problem or muddy point from the last lesson—then, before diving in, I write out the main take-away for the day so students know what to expect. Sometimes I leave a “fill in the blank” here, so they are encouraged to find the missing piece. I start the lesson with a question that catalyzes student thinking. This engages their prior knowledge, allows them to interact with each other to share ideas, and prepares them for instruction. It also gives me feedback, so I can tailor my instruction for the day. Then I field a short, full-group discussion before I provide the answer. I try to limit my lecturing to no more than 15 minutes before another activity, usually in their semester-long design teams. I assess student learning through design reviews and relevant deliverables throughout the semester that engage them actively in designing products and critiquing each other’s work.

Third, I emphasize rigor and skill-building. To do this, I plan my lessons using a backwards design framework in order to scaffold student learning toward higher and higher level of awareness and skill. I identify the learning objectives and how I will assess the students well before I plan the actual instructional activity. My learning objectives and assessments to cover higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy [2], meaning students do not merely show that they can remember or understand a principle—instead they use that principle to analyze, evaluate, and create. In addition, I emphasize writing and statistics in my classroom, both of which I believe are typically under-utilized in undergraduate engineering classrooms but are integral to analytical and critical thinking that engineers need. In the past, I have asked students to write out their own personal design philosophy on the first day of class and revise it throughout the semester; if I was teaching a research methods class, I would have students write and revise a NIH-style specific aims page.

Finally, I get my students out of the classroom and provide them with real-world design resources. I have arranged for field trips to product design consultant firms. I have also brought classes to visit the local engineering resources on campus such as a maker space or prototyping lab. Conducting a class here introduces students to the resources and gets them comfortable in the shops quickly, as I strongly believe in the strategy of “build early and build often.” Further, my students would benefit from my experience working closely with and designing for clinically impaired populations (e.g., traumatic brain injury, stroke, older adults), providing them insight into the unique constraints when designing for these individuals. My goal is to develop product design engineers that are not only technically competent, but also have a holistic understanding of physical usability concerns, especially during fundamental movements such as walking and standing.