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Cornell Engineering

Professor T. Michael Duncan

duncan2It’s nine o’clock on a Friday morning and T. Michael Duncan is standing at the front of his Olin Hall classroom, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Some of you have noticed that I use a variety of mugs, including this one, which was given to me  earlier this semester by  two students from last year’s class,” says the, Raymond G. Thorpe Teaching Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, launching into his lecture, though it’s a little too early to tell exactly what he’s going to teach. Then, as the mug  warms, its outside  becomes transparent, and an image appears.

    It’s a flow sheet for this class, Intro to Chemical Engineering, with freshmen entering on the left side, following the arrows through a chemical reactor in the center, and emerging on the right with a set of lifelong learning skills that lead to either chemical engineering or another major. “This is an ‘interest’ separator, which is how this class works,” says Duncan, coming to the heart of his approach. “What are you interested in? The key is to follow your interests, not your grades. Don’t choose a path on the basis of four years of study, but on the forty-year career that comes after it. Follow your passion.”

    That’s pure Duncan, who’s been following his passion for teaching freshmen for the past 22 years. That’s why his office is piled with presents from past classes, including the coffee mug, a rhinestone-studded French curve, and a logo T-shirt that reads “America runs on Duncan.” That’s why he was named 2013 Tau Beta Pi Professor of the Year, making him the first three-time winner in the history of the award, which he also won in 1997 and 2008. And that’s just the latest in a long line of awards that includes the Tien Prize for Teaching Excellence (1994), the Paramount Professor Award (1995), the Mr. and Mrs. Richard F. Tucker ’50 Excellence in Teaching Award (2000), the Outstanding Faculty Award for the College of Engineering (2001), the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship (2005), the James M. and Marsha D. McCormick Award for Excellence in Advising First Year Students (2006 and 2010), and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s New York Professor of the Year (2007).

    “Honestly, I didn’t expect to win,” says Duncan, referring to the 2013 award from Tau Beta Pi, though he could have been talking about any of them. “So it truly came as a shock, and because it’s chosen by students, that’s the greatest honor I could have. When I started here at Cornell, I thought I’d be teaching skills students wouldn’t appreciate until much later, like the times I’d sat in class and thought, ‘This is just a waste of time.’ Then years later, I’d go, ‘Boom! That was a great class! I should have paid more attention.’ That’s what I was hoping for.”

    After finishing his doctorate at Caltech in 1980, Duncan spent ten years as a researcher at Bell Labs before arriving in Ithaca in 1990. Intro to Chemical Engineering was the first course he’d ever taught, so he began by reading as much as he could about the ways people learn, searching for the optimal approach, and quickly deciding to use his lectures to supplement homework, not the other way around. (“We’ve been flipping the classroom from the beginning,” he says, “since before it had a name.”)

    Other advances followed: He established a new focus on design, which he calls “the ultimate purpose of engineering,” beginning with the first assignment of the semester. He created a form to help students identify their learning styles, and built a system for creating teams of complementary learners. To formalize his approach, he co-wrote Chemical Engineering Design and Analysis: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press 1998), which  is widely used around the world. He instituted twice-weekly calculation sessions, led by a staff of undergrad teaching assistants, and has increasingly focused his lectures on doing whatever it takes to teach freshmen to think like engineers.

    “When I’m standing in front of the room, it really is a performance,” says Duncan, who also serves as associate director of the department, reviewing his lecture. “That’s what I was doing with the coffee cup, and if you looked at my notes, you’d see they have stage directions. I’m visualizing what’s going to be on the screen, where I’m going to stand, what I’m going to write on the board. There’s a fine balance between just standing at the podium and doing too much. But you’ve got to engage the whole class, and that takes a little performance—which is fine, as long as you’re performing your truest self.”

     Kenny Berkowitz