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Aksamija Selected as Lilly Teaching Fellow

Zlatan Aksamija

Zlatan
Aksamija

Professor Zlatan Aksamija of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Departments has been named as a Lilly Teaching Fellow. The Selection Committee of the Lilly Fellows Program has chosen Aksamija as one of only eight recipients nationally to get the Lilly Fellowship for Teaching Excellence. This is a significant achievement, given the high volume and quality of nominations this year, which the committee members described as “absolutely incredible.”

Participation in the Lilly Fellows Program involves biweekly meetings during the academic year, a new course design (or significant redesign of an existing course), and a proposal for giving a teaching development workshop at the departmental, college-wide, or campus-wide level the year after the fellowship. Each fellow’s department will receive a $7,000 grant toward the cost of a course release, and at the end of the fellowship year the fellow will receive a $7,000 transfer to his/her research trust fund to go toward support of ongoing course development activities, such as summer salary, student support, books, and supplies. 

Aksamija says that teaching is what inspired him to want to become a professor in the first place. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 15, midway through his freshmen year of high school in his new city of Chicago.

After he made his way to college, he was inspired by his new teachers there. “Professors and TAs alike pushed students to excel, gave us extra assignments in honors courses, and taught to all students,” he recalls, “not just to the worst and most in need of help to pass. I learned that, as one of my professors often remarked, ‘effort pays dividend.’”

He adds that “The academic rigor and rich diversity of courses inspired me to truly pour all of my effort into learning, and from day one onwards there was never a doubt in my mind about what I wanted, no, had to become.”

That would be a faculty member and teacher in a respected university.

“It was not just a career, it was a mission, a calling—learn, develop, educate,” says Aksamija. “I also fell in love with its unselfishness—it was not a mission of earning more, having, keeping. It was a mission of gaining knowledge for the sake of expanding it and then passing it to others.”

He notes that this mission is now at the heart of his aspirations as an ECE faculty member: “I aspire to continue learning so that I can teach others. Likewise, I aspire to expand our collective knowledge of engineering and science so that I can be a more effective teacher and pass on my knowledge to others, making their educational journey easier and more fulfilling so that they can reach even farther than I have reached.”

Aksamija plans to use his Lilly Teaching Fellowship to redesign his required junior-level course in ECE344 Semiconductor Materials and Devices, which he describes as a “foremost opportunity to build a foundation from which our students will explore and learn about nanotechnology. As semiconductor devices shrink past the nanoscale, it becomes harder and harder to imagine, describe, understand, and design them.”

He explains that, at the same time, our computers, powered by billions of nanoscale semiconductor transistor devices, get more capable and powerful every year.

As Aksamija says, “Their power now allows us to use computers to simulate and explore, in atomistic detail and with unprecedented atomic-scale accuracy, how nanoscale semiconductor devices work at the fundamental level.”

ECE344 is an exciting place to bring teaching innovation because it introduces students for the first time to the world of electronics at the nanoscale. “It’s a world where electrons whiz by in every direction, carrying currents and colliding with crystal lattices,” says Aksamija. “Starting essentially from scratch and introducing 80 students to the wonders of semiconductors and nanotechnology is both challenging and exciting.”

He says that simulation-based learning can now be used as a virtual laboratory to get hands-on exposure to the kinds of nanoscale devices that we could not possibly make or probe in a campus environment.

As Aksamija says, “I plan to bring these new simulation tools into the classroom, in order to transform the way our students learn about semiconductor materials and devices, akin to how virtual dissection is transforming undergraduate biology courses.”

Aksamija explains that the required high-fidelity computer simulation tools are already available, complete with clear graphical user interfaces and free of charge, through the NSF-sponsored on-line education portal “nanoHUB.org.”

“I was among the developers and contributors of this portal when it was in its infancy a decade ago,” says Aksamija. “I propose to further integrate these on-line scientific simulation tools into the course as weekly “labs” where students work through a series of virtual lab exercises on nanoHUB. Doing so in a structured hands-on lab environment would help the students more clearly visualize how semiconductor devices operate and observe directly the outcomes of the device design decisions. Ultimately, my goal is to make the course both more enjoyable and more useful to the students by increasing the retention of the material.”

Aksamija also plans to record his lectures and make them available on-line for students to watch at their own pace. ECE344 lectures can sometimes be very dense, covering a lot of material in order to bridge the large divide between freshman level physics and semiconductor technology.

He adds that a “flipped classroom” concept could work well in such a situation because the students can bring the lecture pace down to their level of comfort, repeating the sections they understood poorly and preparing their questions for the times when the class meets. This alternative learning approach would also better accommodate the added time spent on the virtual labs as well as prepare the students for the labs beforehand, while allowing them to go back to the material and solidify the concepts they lacked in the lab.

In addition, creating structured lab exercises coupled with on-line learning resources will make it easier for new faculty to “rotate into” teaching ECE344 in the future, providing more continuity in the delivery of the course.

In addition to ECE344, Aksamija proposes to contribute to the dialogue about teaching in his department in two ways: to create a blog to detail the transformation of ECE344 into a flipped classroom and virtual lab; and to author and share a community document delineating best practices in teaching electrical engineering.  (April 2016)