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Wasserman does 'whatever it takes' to get students to learn

10/22/2014

Elizabeth Innes, I-STEM Education Initiative

ECE Assistant Professor Daniel Wasserman
ECE Assistant Professor Daniel Wasserman
Assistant Professor Daniel M Wasserman has never met a STEM education challenge he hasn't liked.

While he enjoys working with Illinois engineering students (whom he says "are, of course, top, top students, and they're fantastic"), for a change of pace—and maybe a challenge—he also likes to work with non-engineering college students, high school students, even grade-schoolers.

Wasserman's research area is mid-infrared photonics, or developing materials or devices that generate, detect, or interact with infrared light. However, in addition to his research on optics, he likes to teach about it.

For example, he developed a course designed for undergraduates who have little experience in science and engineering.

"The idea was to try to bridge the north-south campus gap to show them what scientists do," he said.

He hopes to engage future politicians, venture capitalists, business people, journalists, and more generally, "people who might not be scientists but who need to interact with scientists, or who use the things that scientists generate."

ECE 198, In a New Light: Hands-On Optics for Non-Scientists, is a course designed to teach students what it means to work in a lab, what it means to do science, and how to present that science.

"I want them to understand optics," he said, "but the end goal of the course is not to have them be optics ‘stars'…I want them to be able to understand how scientists operate; I'm more concerned about them understanding what it means to show something experimentally; what a scientist means when he or she talks about evidence, to understand and analyze results."

His main goal in the course is to encourage students to think critically.

"That's one of the most important things I try to drill home," Wasserman said. "Don't just accept everything; think about whether something makes sense or not. Then prove it." 

Daniel Wasserman looks on as grad student Lan Yu pours liquid nitrogen into a device in his lab.
Daniel Wasserman looks on as grad student Lan Yu pours liquid nitrogen into a device in his lab.

While the course was designed for non-engineering students, it's also a discovery course for freshmen engineering students. In fact, one undergrad liked the course so much that she joined Wasserman's lab and is considering switching from computer science to electrical engineering.

Wasserman clearly enjoys working with a wide range of students from grad students seeking their PhDs, to engineering undergrads destined for real-world jobs in a couple of years, all the way down to fourth-graders who are still learning what engineering is. In a job interview, Wasserman was once asked what is philosophy of education was in teaching all of these varied groups of students.

His reply: "Whatever it takes to get the students to learn."

He believes all students are different, and require different approaches. For example, the approach he takes in a core course in ECE is very different from the approach he would take for an outreach activity or something with high school students, or non-science undergrads. 

Left to right: Wasserman Group grad students Lan Yu, Will Streyer, and Assistant Professor Daniel Wasserman
Left to right: Wasserman Group grad students Lan Yu, Will Streyer, and Assistant Professor Daniel Wasserman

He's also developed a number of hands-on activities related to optics to make learning exciting. For example, in one activity, students build a wireless messaging system; using two computers, they send light across the lab, and the two computers communicate wirelessly.

Wasserman says he designed some of these lab activities to be modular so they can be condensed into smaller time-frames and done with high-school students, who like activities and competitions. And his goal in outreach is to make it fun.

"I try to get students excited about science, and to understand why science can be so exciting and so much fun; and maybe even have them learn, but not actually realize that they're learning anything," he said.