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Mitra receives outstanding teaching award


Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Teaching accomplishments are often unsung. It lacks the pizazz of research. In lecture halls, sophisticated lab equipment is traded for video projectors, ampoules for whiteboard markers. Yet teaching is the central collegiate mission, and this fall, in recognition of exceptional creativity and dedication to student instruction, Assistant Professor Sayan Mitra has been awarded the C. Holmes MacDonald Outstanding Teaching Award by IEEE-Eta Kappa Nu, a national recognition given each year to a single electrical engineering professor.


Sayan Mitra
Sayan Mitra
Mitra, who is also an assistant professor at the Coordinated Science Laboratory and the Information Trust Institute, is known for engaging lectures and clear articulation of even the most difficult topics. The introductory computer engineering course (ECE 198), which he is teaching this fall, is a case in point. “I relate topics to recent events, computer security breaches, software bugs,” he said. “And we talk about the story of Robert Noyce, John Bardeen.” The lecture pace is further moderated with on-the-fly programming demonstrations.


In the past, this class had been the well-known Introduction to Computer Systems (ECE 190), a single-semester course. “ECE 190 introduces the basics of programming and computer architecture in a unique way,” Mitra said. “It goes up all the way from transistor devices, assembly language programming to C programming and elementary data structures. The philosophy is that if you understand how the computer works, then you’ll be a better programmer.” Yet, with all of that packed into a single semester, Mitra and the ECE Curriculum Committee, of which he has been a member for the past three years, felt that the course should be expanded to provide a comprehensive treatment of this core material. 


In other semesters, Mitra teaches senior level and graduate courses. “These are different audiences, but I enjoy both,” he said. The graduate-level course goes into proofs, models, and abstractions and is aimed to prepare students for research. Mitra maintains a constant evolution of the course material as new research is published.  


As a member of the curriculum committee, Mitra has been active in redesigning the overall academic experience for computer-engineering students. “The last few years have been unique,” he said. “There is a lot of discussion and activities around developing the next generation of the curriculum and classroom delivery techniques; a lot of thought has been put into it.”


Over a two-year span, the committee has developed new curriculum for the program, and now that plan is being implemented and reviewed. “Serving in the curriculum committee is one of those experiences, which will shape the rest of my career as an academic,” Mitra said. “There are passionate and nuanced arguments, and it quickly became clear to me that designing curriculum is as much of a hard engineering problem as some of the topics in those courses.” 


Mitra remembers when Professor Douglas L Jones gave a presentation on the curriculum several years ago, and Jones emphasized the large percentage of ECE graduates and the alumni who become leaders in the field. “That was, really inspiring,” Mitra said, reflecting on the presentation. 


Mitra must have aced that lesson. Whether he is lecturing before a class of two hundred students or meeting with students for one-on-one help during office hours, the student experience is always a foremost priority, and there is no doubt that future leaders will be inspired by his classes.  


“Some of these students would come out of a class and say, ‘Hey, I liked that lecture’…and that would be the beginning of a conversation for either an undergraduate project or about grad school,” Mitra said. “It is rewarding to see how a little mentoring can take our motivated students well beyond the classroom, towards making serious contributions in the research laboratories.”