Professor Tim Chang: On Teaching the iPod Generation

Professor Timothy Chang

During his nearly 20 years at NJIT, Professor Timothy Chang has won a host of teaching awards. He’s been cited for his use of technology in the classroom; for introducing web-based lab experiments that students can work on from home, as well as for developing a number of interactive classes that allow for computer-aided instruction.

He is also a leading researcher who involves his students in his research projects. And that research experience has helped many of his students launch engineering careers or progress to graduate school.

Chang recently received an Excellence in Research Award during NJIT’s annual Convocation ceremony. In the below interview, Chang discusses how he has changed his teaching methods to appeal to the iPod generation – students who were weaned on the Web.

How has your teaching changed to appeal to such students?
Current college students are what our NJIT librarian, Richard Sweeney, calls the Millennial Generation. The Internet and gadgets have totally changed the education landscape, and the education delivery methods must change accordingly. In my classes, I use hands-on projects to motivate my students. I use state-of-the-art software and engineering data to produce animated videos of robots, cranes, etc. Students love animation, and all these things make the subjects more interesting. They are accustomed to using fancy gadgets. They don't have the patience for pen and paper, so I let them express themselves through software design or hardware design. That heightens their interest and motivates them.

How do use technology in the classroom?
I use web-based technology, which the students really appreciate. My website serves a number of purposes. One: Education resources: lecture notes, assignments, solutions, software, and class projects are available for students to download. Two: Communication with the student. A readme file and a FAQ file are maintained online to provide students with up to date information about the class. An email link is also maintained in the site for the students, who send their comments and concerns to me. And three, distance experiments: The students enrolled in one of my classes, called Real-Time Control Systems, can access a class experiment from their home computers, thus increasing the flexibility and efficiency of the experiments.

How do your structure your classes?
My classes consist of lectures, mini-labs and class exercises. After each major topic, there is a class exercise in which students work together. Our labs take place in the computer lab and, working in teams, we use different software to solve problems.

Overall, what are the keys to effective teaching?
First you must love it.  I feel lucky and privileged to work at something I love: teaching. It’s a job that allows me to can imbue students with a desire for learning, creativity and engineering. Overall, effective teaching may be summarized by three "knows." A teacher must know the material, must know his students and know himself. I teach difficult topics by relating classroom materials to real-life engineering problems. I also use computers as supplementary (rather than alternative) teaching tools. I always remind my students of the importance of good judgment, creativity and of keeping-up with technological advances (such as new product, theoretical results, and computer software). To keep their attention, I also crack jokes. And perhaps most effectively, I distribute candy to the class. My students seem to prefer jolly ranchers, so I make sure to stay well stocked!

What do your students most enjoy about your ECE classes?
My students have a lot of fun. When students like their major, and many ECE student love it, their projects become not work but enjoyment. They love hands-on design projects, and that’s a lot of what they do. Every semester, for example, the ECE department hosts a design competition. Students divide into teams and work on new technologies. One recent student team designed an ultrasonic system for tracking babies in hospitals. Another team designed a shape memory alloy robotic hand that can grasp objects like a human hand, and a third team made a device that controls the power supply system in a handgun.

How else do you keep in touch with young people, high school students, and how they like to learn?
In the town where I live, I served on the board of education from 2000-2003. Being a board of education member helps me appreciate the link between K-12 and college education. One feeds into the other. I also have two-teenaged children. Through them I learn a great deal about how young people like to learn, through multi-tasking and hands-on projects, computers and technology-based learning.

What are your main research interests?
I love robots, especially those on the atomic level. These robots are so small and capable of such minute movements; they can probe into your cells and extract your nucleus. In another research project, I'm working to deposit the entire human gene sequence onto a glass chip.

How do you get students involved in your research projects?
All my graduate students work on experimental systems as a part of their research program. The model is a balance between theory, experiment, and application. I believe this model enhances their appreciation for the real life aspect of engineering. For the undergraduates, I typically involve about 10 students every year to work in my lab for their senior design projects. I am very happy to tell you that in the past 5 years, 4 of my student teams won first prize in their Senior Project Design Competition.

Do your students move on to creative careers?
Soon, there will be an MP3 player far superior to the iPod; there will be faster laptops and cells phones and a much better iPhone. Our students will be the ones who will design these new technologies. They will have creative careers, and the starting salaries for computer engineers are among the highest of any engineering field.

Is teaching a rewarding job?
I often receive emails from our graduates, telling me about their careers and about how they benefited from studying electrical and computer engineering at NJIT. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that our graduates do well and that they appreciate what they learned here at NJIT.

Did you have good teachers in college who motivated you?
Yes, my hero was the late Professor George Zames: a brilliant man with a good sense of humor, too. His research was recognized internationally. His teaching was one that encouraged creative thinking and student involvement. George was a very funny man too. I also remember one of his one-liners: “Education is one business where the customers don't want their money’s worth.”

I understand both your parents taught. Did they influence you?
Yes my parents were both teachers: my father was a professor of economic history, and my mother taught high school. My father was, and still is, a life-long learner. He is in his 90s now, but he is still learning and teaching himself new things. And when he taught college, he was passionate about passing on his knowledge to his students. I guess I was inspired by his example.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)