Q&A with Teaching Award Winner Kyle Griffin

Kyle Griffin in bioprocessing lab
Kyle Griffin in bioprocessing lab
Kyle Griffin has one Michigan Tech's 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award.

Kyle Griffin is the recipient of Michigan Technological University’s 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor category. 

Kyle Griffin is an assistant teaching professor of chemical engineering. He received his bachelor’s in chemical engineering and his Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Florida. He specializes in bioprocess engineering (solving problems with systems involving living cells) and anaerobic digestion (breaking down organic materials with bacteria in zero-oxygen environments) and teaches courses in material and energy balances, thermodynamics and process control. 

"The fact that Kyle earned this distinction in his first year as a faculty member at Michigan Tech is incredibly impressive. From the moment he joined MTU, Dr. Griffin has given his passion, energy and time in support of student learning. The subjects he teaches contain difficult concepts that simply have to be mastered. I am very glad to have him as a member of our faculty."Janet Callahan, dean of the College of Engineering

Q: Do you have a favorite course to teach?

KG: Chemical Process Control is my favorite course to teach. The goal of the course is to use computer systems to automatically control the output of a chemical engineering process by altering the input to the process. I like to describe it as “the math behind how the heating system in your home knows when to turn on or off based on the temperature you set on the thermostat.” The methods used in the course are a bit different than common methods used in most chemical engineering courses, and I think that’s what makes it unique, interesting and fun to teach.

Q: How would you describe your teaching style? 

KG: I’ll start with authenticity. I am my authentic self whether I’m in the classroom or at the grocery store, and I want my students to see that. I tell stories. I ask open-ended questions before class to get the students talking, like “What’s your favorite kind of pie?” I show pictures of my dog. I make jokes. These things start a rapport between me and my students and show them that I’m not some enigma, but just a normal person like them. This also helps remove the layer of fear some students have of asking their professor a question or coming to office hours. I want my students to feel comfortable asking me questions (that’s why I’m here, after all), and opening up a little as my authentic self really helps accomplish this.

I love to incorporate anecdotes with the material I teach. It’s a great way to ground seemingly complex concepts in reality while also adding some humor. There are so many topics that can be connected to everyday situations that students are familiar with, and making those connections helps them grasp the material. Something as simple as connecting automatic process control with the common experience of trying to get the water temperature in a hotel shower to the “Goldilocks Temperature.” It doesn’t seem connected at first glance, but it’s an almost one-to-one connection that nearly everyone has experienced.

It hasn’t been that long since I was in the same classes they were, so I’m able to envision how my lectures will be experienced from their shoes. This is a massive advantage for me as a teacher, as it is easy for me to break down my lectures to the right level for my students as if I was the student. I am a proponent of teaching as you would like to be taught, and that transfers into my teaching style. I also care very deeply about my students and am cognizant that my class is not the only thing going on in their lives. While I do set expectations and boundaries as the professor, I also give my students some say in things, such as letting them choose an exam date from a set of dates. This prevents scheduling my exams on the same day as exams in other classes and lets the students know that I care and am trying to work with them and not overload them.

"Dr. Kyle Griffin has an easy-going demeanor but brings a level of enthusiasm to the classroom which is truly contagious. He incorporates an excellent blend of traditional conceptual learning and applications of those concepts through examples. Students are encouraged to solve problems by logging on to their computers in real time during the applications toward problem-solving. This is a great way to keep the students engaged while demonstrating the use of technology — an impressive approach."Pradeep Agrawal, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering

Q: What instructional methods or philosophies do you use to be successful?

KG: My main instructional method is to first teach a topic, then apply it to a few examples. You can teach theory all day long, but for a lot of people, myself included, the real understanding comes from application. I have had great success in first working through an example with the class as a whole, then having the class break into small groups and work on a similar problem before coming back together as a class and having the students walk me through the problem as they solved it. This provides the students an opportunity to try working through problems on their own or with a classmate in a low-stakes environment, instead of trying a problem for the first time on something worth a grade, like homework. Having the students walk me through the problem solution also lets them explain what they did verbally, which is a lot more difficult than just solving a problem on paper. If a student can explain a solution verbally, they are almost certainly understanding the process on a deeper level than just writing down the solution. I also like to provide hands-on opportunities for learning. The Chemical Process Control course has a lab component, and with the wonderful facilities we have in our department, I can physically show the students nearly every concept we discuss in lecture, while also letting them get their hands dirty.

Q: What do you think makes for a successful learning experience?

KG: The biggest factor is making connections between the lecture material and the real world. I can talk about a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller all day long, but what do these things mean, really? What do they look like and how do they behave in reality? Being able to show students these pieces of equipment and let them use them in a lab environment really enhances the learning experience for them. The topics we discuss can seem esoteric on paper, but when the students can sit down and see how they look and work in the lab and can play with them, they begin to realize that the equations we learned aren’t just math equations, they’re born out of real, natural processes and they have meaning.

Distinguished Teaching Award

Since 1982, the annual Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award has been awarded in two categories: Associate Professor/Professor and Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor. The award nomination and review processes are student-driven; finalists are selected based on student ratings regarding quality of instruction. Winners receive $2,500 and a plaque at an awards dinner sponsored by the Office of the President in the fall.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face in your work and how do you address and/or overcome those challenges?

KG: The courses I teach include some complex topics, and trying to figure out how to explain these topics in a way that students will understand is probably my biggest challenge. Usually, a textbook will have a good explanation of a topic that’s great to use as a basis for my explanation in lecture, but occasionally I will come across something that the textbook just does not explain well. In those situations, I turn to other textbooks or the internet to find supplements that can help clarify complicated topics or methods. 

Another challenge I face is finding good practice problems. While I do write my own practice problems frequently, it is also nice to have some textbook practice problems that are already worked out and tested. The issue is when textbooks jump from simple problems to difficult, exam-level problems without having many “in-the-middle” problems that work well as practice problems. I end up having to comb through most problems to figure out if they’re the right difficulty level for the situation or if I can modify them to be so.

Q: What drew you to study chemical engineering as an undergrad? 

KG: I always enjoyed math when I was growing up and was part of the Mu Alpha Theta math teams at my middle and high school. We used to go to math competitions on Saturdays! I also learned that my dad has never met a problem he couldn’t solve, and over the years I picked up problem-solving and repair skills just by working with him. On top of that, I always enjoyed building things, so I knew I would go into some sort of engineering field for college. In high school, I took Chemistry and enjoyed it so much that I took AP Chemistry. Then I thought, “Hey, I can combine math, chemistry and building things if I pursue chemical engineering, so maybe I should choose that.” That ended up being the right choice, because I’ve had a deep love of the field ever since I began studying it.

Kyle Griffin in labQ: Who (or what) inspired you to become a teacher?

KG: When I was in college at the University of Florida, I spent five years as a training supervisor in the Academic Technology branch of the university’s IT department. I ended up really enjoying teaching new student employees in a professional setting. I had already decided to go to graduate school, but didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after that, and that job opened my eyes to the possibility of teaching. Then in graduate school, I learned from and was a teaching assistant (TA) for my main Ph.D. advisors, Dr. Pratap Pullammanappallil and Dr. Spyros Svoronos. Their genuine love of the material they teach and the way they teach was very formative for me as a teacher. Toward the end of my Ph.D. program, Dr. Svoronos recruited me to teach a few sections of his Process Control lab, which was my first real experience as a teacher leading a class, as opposed to just being a TA. I enjoyed the experience so much — and at that point, teaching as a career was pretty much a sealed deal for me.

Q: What opportunities does this award open up for you?

KG: I would say it supercharges my inspiration and motivation. I’m incredibly honored (and still a bit shocked) to receive this award after only my first year as an assistant teaching professor. I’m beyond touched that I was able to make enough of an impact on my students that they helped me win this award. I really couldn’t have done this without them, and I cannot thank them enough for their kindness. This award has me motivated to keep working hard to inspire future students, while also inspiring me to grow as a teacher and try new things in the classroom to make the learning experience I provide for students the best it can possibly be.


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