David Delchamps, ECE, Sonny Yau '72 Award
For Dave Delchamps, effective education starts with respect. "I respect my students. They deserve my respect as fellow human beings and as fellow learners," he says. "In return, they generally accord me respect as a person and as a teacher. If I listen to them, they'll listen to me. We're in this together."
Delchamps views himself as simply another person who happens to know more about the material than the students do. "I'm not the boss, or the cops, or the vice principal. I'm not a gatekeeper to the higher echelons of the curriculum or the profession," he says. "I'm a communicator, and my job is to impart to the students some fraction of what I know and prepare them to take it from there when the time comes."
Delchamps mainly teaches theoretical, mathematically intensive courses like Mathematics of Signal and System Analysis. His lectures, created at the moment from rough outlines, are always the core component. "In my lectures, I need to follow one trail through a forest of material. We can't touch every tree, but if I choose the trail well it will intersect with a lot of side trails whose presence the students can mark," he says. "I hope that in future learning contexts they will be prepared to venture down these side trails based on what they've taken away from my course."
"Dave is renowned for his captivating lecture style in which he does not use notes, writes eloquently on the blackboard, and has an uncanny knack for articulating difficult concepts," writes ECE director Tsuhan Chen in his nomination. "Many students have marveled at their notes following lectures and consider them gems."
"Evolutionary Algorithms was one of the best courses I've experienced at Cornell," reads one student evaluation. "[The professor's] humor and personal interest in the subject fueled my own motivation."
"Professor Delchamps is AWESOME. He has this amazing ability to take a topic of dubious interest and make it interesting," reads another.
Delchamps won't teach a course until he has a deep understanding of the material. That way he has first-hand knowledge of which areas are the most difficult to grasp and can put special emphasis on them. He says his principal strategy, however, is to channel some of the great teachers he's had the privilege of learning from. "Perhaps that makes me a shameless imitator," he says, "but maybe I'm 'paying it forward' at the same time."
In more than 25 years of teaching at Cornell, Delchamps says he has learned to be a little more patient with students. "I've also ratcheted up my effort to get students to talk in class," he says. "I'll ask them 'easy' questions and try to get them to respond. Sometimes it's like drawing blood from a stone, but I think it's worth the effort."
Delchamps acknowledges to students that the details of what he teaches them are not the most important things they'll get out of his course. "Rather, I hope to foster habits of thought and behavior, including analytical and logical thinking, the knowledge of where and how to 'look things up,' and above all the ability to process new information in the future and add it in an orderly fashion to their mental data bases," he says. "I want them to be ready to keep on learning for the rest of their lives and I hope they will want to do so."