Scott Miers, Tess Ahlborn, Receive Tech’s Highest Honors for Teaching

Miers_Scottby Marcia Goodrich

Effervescent enthusiasm for students and the classroom marks both winners of Michigan Technological University’s 2014 Distinguished Teaching Award. Tess Ahlborn, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, received the award in the associate professor, professor category. Scott Miers, newly promoted to associate professor of mechanical engineering–engineering mechanics, was honored in the assistant professor, professor of practice and lecturer category.

“Dr. Ahlborn is enthusiastic, almost to the point of being weird—and I mean that in the best possible way,” wrote one of her students. “It’s contagious! Absolute genuine enthusiasm. This woman loves concrete, and if you don’t love it, it’s okay, but you sure can appreciate it solely based on her absolute love for it.”

Wrote another, “You want to come to class and would be crazy to miss it or sleep during it. It’s a great folly and only hurts you to miss.”

David Hand, chair of civil and environmental engineering, calls Ahlborn “well deserving of the Distinguished Teaching Award.”

“She works hard at her teaching and takes it very seriously,” he said. “And the students really like her. She’s an excellent teacher.”

Ahlborn, who joined the faculty in 1995, primarily teaches structural engineering courses focusing on concrete and the design of concrete buildings and bridges. As for her secrets to good teaching, she insists there aren’t any.

“All you have to do is be fair and consistent and crack a joke once in awhile,” said Ahlborn. “When you get into structural details, students can get glassy-eyed pretty fast. A 30-second break can do wonders for bringing your class back.”

Actually, there may be more to it than that. “I hate to say it, but I’m an entertainer,” she said. Ahlborn makes a conscious effort to avoid speaking in a monotone when she lectures. She invites alumni to speak to her classes on life after Tech, and she regularly brings in current news articles relating to the course, not to mention chunks of concrete with stories to tell. All together, “it helps the students understand why what they are learning is important.”

“She uses good real-world examples,” a student wrote. “Her classes are casual, yet well-structured, and draw on her experience working in industry, as well as experience with the American Concrete Institute, to explain the relevance of what we learn.”

She also connects her material with the rest of the civil engineering curriculum, helping provide students with a cohesive body of knowledge that can launch their careers. “They start to realize how important their education has been,” Ahlborn said. “I tell them, you and your Tech education, you will make us proud.”

And the jokes? “My rule of thumb is that you must be able to tell it to six-year-old kids at the kitchen table,” she said. The engineer-y ones are best: “Did you hear about the band 1024 Megabyte? They haven’t gotten any gigs yet.”

Yes, it’s a lot of work, she says. “But the students empower me. I used to think I was there to inspire them, but a couple years ago, I realized, these guys are so engaged, they are inspiring me. And all of a sudden, my teaching changed. It’s their reactions that keep me going.”

Scott Miers has won his department’s teaching award twice, and it’s easy to see why.

“Scott’s a ball of fire,” said Bill Predebon, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering–Engineering Mechanics. “The enthusiasm that he brings to the classroom is contagious. The material is difficult—thermodynamics is challenging— but the students get exited because he is excited. Plus, Scott’s approachable. He makes sure students aren’t intimidated, and he’s open to any questions.”

The students agree. “Scott makes every topic interesting and exciting. He is available for undergraduate students, both in his office and via email. It’s very clear that my class is a priority, based on the tremendous time and effort he puts into it,” wrote one of his students. “He has enthusiasm, passion and effort that he brings to the class.”

Wrote another, “His assignments related to the real world or industry data give us an indirect hands-on experience. His grading and exams are very fair and you can tell he puts time and thought into writing good exams.”

Miers, who teaches internal combustion engines as well as thermodynamics, got his professional start outside academia, and since joining the faculty six years ago has continued to work on industry-sponsored research. “It grounds me in the fundamentals and the applications of engineering, so even though I’m not employed by John Deere, I can bring that to the classroom,” he said. It pays off. “I’ll get emails from former students who say that when they were first hired, they were better prepared than many senior engineers.”

He makes sure students have mastered concepts before proceeding, while minding the need to cover the material. The balancing act works. “I have never felt lost in any of his lectures, unlike almost all of my other classes,” said one student.

Miers finds the process very satisfying. “I like being a part of the aha moment, when that light bulb goes on,” he said. “I love to troubleshoot. It’s so exciting. You find the student’s stumbling block, then you let them discover the solution on their own. Once they make that leap, you can’t hold them back.”

“There are many days I walk down the hall and think. ‘I get paid to do this?’”

Like Ahlborn, he admits to being on stage in the classroom. “Part of good teaching is acting,” he said. “The material is the easiest part. There is a certain level of performance required to keep students engaged.”

“He has made me excited to be a professional engineer and confirmed my career path,” wrote a student. “I have never looked forward to a class as much as I do when Dr. Miers is teaching. . . . He has been the best teacher I have had at Michigan Tech in the five years I have attended this school.”

Miers and Ahlborn will each receive a cash prize of $2,500.