Nation’s Top Engineering Educator

USF Professor Autar Kaw to receive the 2011 National Outstanding Teaching Medal from the American Society for Engineering Education.


USF professor Autar Kaw addresses his students. Photo credit: Aimee Blodgett | USF News


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 19, 2011) – Autar Kaw is an enemy of anything that gets in the way of his students understanding the mathematical and engineering calculations and concepts he teaches, and is a true friend of every method that helps.


He’s passionate about eliminating the former and promoting the latter when he’s in front of his class – which might have something to do with why the University of South Florida professor of mechanical engineering was selected to receive the 2011 National Outstanding Teaching Medal from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).


It’s the top honor from the leading professional organization in the field.


What makes this one educator stand out above the thousands of others?


Kaw has been ahead of his time in recognizing the value of open source distribution and the importance of presenting knowledge in a variety of ways so that individual learning styles are taken into account.  He tried to get grants to put these ideas into practice as far back as 1990, but it was a radical idea at the time.  Still that didn’t stop him.


“I firmly believe in open and free dissemination of educational materials, and we have ample evidence now of how it has fundamentally changed the modes and improvements in education,” Kaw said. “Also, by making the educational materials pedagogically neutral, their adaptation has been wider, flexible, and mostly immune to the ‘not built here’ syndrome.”


It’s more than a belief for this pioneering educator. He has taken concrete action, and the overwhelming positive response validates his efforts. Since 2002, Kaw has led a team from around the country devoted to making online courseware on numerical methods available to the world. A million page views for his Holistic Numerical Methods Institute site per year plus a half million views of his YouTube lectures and 75,000 annual visitors to his ”numerical methods guy” blog reflect the need and value of what they offer.  A phenomenal amount of time and work was devoted to these projects.


“I use every avenue of integrating real-world and research problems into education. Rather than choose and be attached to a particular teaching pedagogy, I believe that it is important to mix teaching styles to reach, encourage and challenge our diverse student population,” Kaw said of his teaching philosophy. “We are fortunate to live in a time where we have resources to conduct and access evidence-based research in learning sciences, and so we confidently use only those findings that are applicable, confirmed and repeatable.”


He has seen students learn complex concepts once the right method gets through to them.  He’ll use lectures, PowerPoint presentations, textbook chapters, clickers (personal response systems), in-class experiments and simulations, whatever it takes.


“Repetition is what helps people most,” said Kaw, who graduated from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Rajasthan, India. Repetition and overlapping material from one course to the next work well.


“You can’t assume everyone started and stopped at the same point. Often transfer students arrive with a different set of expectations and experiences and all students absorb the material to different degrees, at different rates from different professors. In the final analysis, there is still the need to study hard and work things out for as long as it takes to master the work. That means spending a lot of time studying.”


The rewards will come.


“Some of the largest starting salaries, you will find in the field of engineering, and for so many cultures around the world it is the path to the next level,” Kaw said. “That’s why you find so many people in some developing countries using engineering and the sciences as a pathway out of poverty. There are so many opportunities as all of the world’s economies are becoming more and more technology driven.” 


He adds, “The work is challenging but it can also be enjoyable and you can’t ask for better or more interesting colleagues.”


Those who study nano- and bio-engineering as well as interdisciplinary subject areas can count on being the most sought after, according to Kaw. For him, research and teaching the next generation make for a very satisfying career, which keeps him very busy, but he still finds the time to do volunteer tutoring of math and calculus in his community.


One pet project, making textbooks more affordable, has resulted in starting a special lending library program at USF of a sufficient number of the most important textbooks engineering students need for his course – the only one of its kind on campus.


“He’s hard but it’s rewarding,” said former graduate student Dan Miller now working for Hatch Corporation in Tampa and co-author of a textbook with Kaw.  “You may not appreciate it until you’re further down the pipeline and you’re taking a class and realize, ‘I understand this!’  You find yourself using his methods to dissect and solve all kinds of problems. 


“And he’s so respected by all of his students; you hear it when they’re just talking among themselves. What’s also cool is that he’s behind a lot of breakthrough research in laminates that’s still used today, but he’s really humble about it.  He doesn’t toot his own horn, but he’s played an important role in many people’s lives and careers.”

Kaw is author of four textbooks on numerical methods, matrix algebra, composite materials, and programming. He’s written 49 refereed journal articles, and received four consecutive engineering education grants from NSF since 2001.   


Prestigious awards are nothing new for this Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, either.


His latest national award comes on the heels of having received the 2010 Outstanding Teaching Award from the ASEE Southeastern Section and he was named the 2004 US Florida Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching (CFAT), the Archie Higdon Mechanics Educator Award, from ASEE in 2003 and in 1991 the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Ralph Teetor Award. And his Holistic Numerical Methods Institute website has been awarded the ASME Curriculum Innovation Award (2004) and the ASEE DELOS Best Paper Award (2006). He was also named Jerome Krivanek Distinguished Teacher at USF in 1999.


None of which should come as a surprise since he received the Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Clemson in 1985, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. All along it’s caring about his students and getting through to them that matters most and never stops. 


“I believe that the classroom is not just an avenue for learning but also for meaningful social interaction, but that goes only so far,” said Kaw. “The informal contact during office hours, in hallways, before class starts, after class, at the student organization meetings, is critical also. It builds our students’ interpersonal skills and enhances the human dimension of the faculty-student interaction. Overall, treating students with respect, creating a vibrant atmosphere in the classroom and going beyond to know them as people are essential.”


Kaw will receive his National Outstanding Teaching Medal at the annual ASEE conference in Vancouver, Canada, to be held June 26 - 29.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.