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T. Michael Duncan

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Michael Duncan

Michael Duncan wants his advisees to come to his ENGR 1050 seminar because they want to, not because they feel they have to. "I tell them, 'I'm not going to take roll. I'm going to try to make it worth your time to come here," he says.  

Duncan favors active learning over lecturing. "If you just tell them stuff, it's like lectures on swimming," he says. "Unless you're in the water it doesn't mean anything to you."  

One of his strategies is to have students debate issues like whether extracurricular activities harm one's grade point average. "I use this as a vehicle to make them aware of various things as part of their acclimation to college life," says Duncan. "At first, many think there's not enough time, but they learn that extracurricular activities don't harm GPA but increase one's happiness and GPA can actually go up."  

With so many student groups to choose from, Duncan further guides the students by having them determine whether they are maximizers or satisficers and explaining to them the paradox of choice. For maximizers, too many choices can lead to unhappiness because of the perception of lost opportunities. "Almost every student that comes to Cornell is a maximizer," says Duncan. "If you go through life always having to have the best of everything, you're going to be unhappy. You have to learn that in certain aspects of your life to become a satisficer."  

Taking a "just in time" approach, Duncan picks timely topics for each class. Early in the semester, he'll talk about class schedules. "Firstly, your schedule is not carved in stone," he says he tells them. "You have three weeks to add a class and six to drop one. Go look at all the intro classes and figure out what you want."  

Duncan surveys his class to find out what they want to learn about and presents on those topics, but he does more than that. Most students are interested in doing undergraduate research, for example, but Duncan has them consider other options like being an officer in a student chapter of a professional engineering organization. "Part of the thing is to tell them 'You're not asking the right questions,'" he says. "A lot of our students go on to become managing engineers. If your inclination is management, that's much better."  

Whatever they do with their free time, Duncan encourages students to use time management skills, such as keeping a time log. "Figure out where your time goes," he says. "I'm a firm believer in daily doses of schlock TV. You've got to have your reward at the end of the day, but put it on your schedule."