Hembroff, Suits Win Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Awards

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

A faculty member whose computing students learn the subtleties of public speaking and a physicist who once advised on pumpkin percussion are the 2007 winners of Michigan Tech's Distinguished Teaching Awards.

Physics Professor Bryan Suits was honored in the associate professor/professor category. Assistant Professor Guy Hembroff, who teaches computer network and systems administration in the School of Technology, receives the award in the lecturer/assistant professor category. The award carries a cash prize of $2,500.

Scott Amos, dean of technology, credits Hembroff for much of the success of the new bachelor's program in computer network systems administration. "To see the progress that both Guy and the students in the program have made over the past three years has been phenomenal," said Amos. "The professionalism of the program, the success of the graduates, and the program's increasing national recognition can all be credited to Guy’s tireless efforts. He has really been the driving force."

In response, enrollment has skyrocketed. "The greatness of the program is now only limited by its capacity," Amos said. "It has just gone crazy. Guy has a great vision."

Hembroff came to Michigan Tech with industry experience as a systems engineer and tries to make the classroom experience as relevant as possible. "The biggest thing I try to do is put myself in their shoes," he says. "I ask myself, 'What would I want to get out of the class?'"

If the answer is "mastery of the material," Hembroff offers students every opportunity to succeed. "The most important thing in teaching is communication," he says. "I can tell when students aren't getting it--and when they are--so I ask a lot questions in class, and I try to make it as interesting as possible."

Says one student, "He communicates the material perfectly and makes me strive to be a better student." Says another, in recommending Hembroff for the Distinguished Teaching Award, "I have never learned as high a percentage of what any other person has ever tried to teach me as I have from Professor Hembroff."

His students undertake course projects and make presentations to high school students and industry representatives. "They can get real feedback that way; it gets them into that mode," Hembroff explains. "One of the most difficult things for a lot of my students is public speaking, so it's especially good for them to learn to articulate their ideas to others. And they really like it: they like educating other people."

"And the high school students love it," he added. Three loved it so much they enrolled in the computer network and systems administration program after they graduated. "It worked out pretty nice."

Hembroff is more than a skilled teacher, says Amos. "He is totally devoted to his students. Often you see him sending emails to his students in the middle of the night."

The students agree. "He is the hardest-working professor I have ever seen," says one. "He does more behind-the-scenes work than any student can imagine."

Wrote another: "He is the best professor I have ever had. His class is the one I look forward to every day. I have no desire to ever skip his class for any reason. He is helpful in class as well as outside the classroom. There is no one more qualified. He is simply amazing."

The Distinguished Teaching Award winners are selected from among 10 finalists, in part based on surveys conducted by the Michigan Tech chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa, a national leadership honor society. When Bryan Suits saw which class ODK was polling, he despaired of winning.

"I stretch them pretty hard, and ODK showed up at the time of the term when they were stretched to the max," he said.

Nevertheless, students in PH2230 Electronics for Scientists rose to the occasion and disproved the assertion that students don't like tough teachers. "Even though the material is difficult, it is one of the few classes I enjoy attending. Dr. Suits makes electronics exciting and fun," wrote one. Said another, "He is always willing to make time for students. He inspires his students to do the work. He always knows how to push them, but never makes it seem impossible."

Physics Chair Ravindra Pandey was not surprised at Suits's selection, however. "He took over our physics-major electronics course and made it really fun, and that's not an easy course," he said. "Bryan communicates very well, and he's been a major force behind the improvement of our curriculum and improved retention," changes that have helped double the number of physics majors from 40 to 80.

Suits condenses his teaching strategy into a matter of simple addition. "Physics is something I like, and it's something the students seem to like." Put the two together, and good teaching happens pretty easily.

But it doesn't happen automatically. "You have to tap into what they do like, to keep it interesting and fun, to make it relevant to something that students know about," Suits says.

Thus, he uses many demonstrations, often tailor-made by Mike Meyer, the demo/lab coordinator. "He's is fantastic, and we have a fantastic machinist, Jesse Nordeng, who helps me build stuff," Suits said. "Plus, we also have the resources to do that."

Those resources come from research dollars that enter the department budget. "That's what the university is about, the interplay between faculty and students, research and teaching, and it's working for us now in the department," said Suits.

"The other secret to good teaching is to acknowledge that everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses," he said. "You can't expect every teacher to do the same thing. Some teachers know all students' names after the second class, and I don't try to do that." The ability to refine your own attributes "is part of what academic freedom gives you," he says.

What Suits brings is a high level of professionalism and deep concern for his students. "He exemplifies why I enjoy Michigan Tech," wrote a student. "He would help somebody with anything they were having trouble with."

Say others: "He loves what he does and it comes through in his teaching." "He is a leader among his peers and a sage to his students."

Now for the bit about the pumpkin. In fall 2006, Suits, who is principal flautist for the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra, developed and taught a new course, the Physics Behind the Music, which focuses on the physics of musical instruments, recording and acoustics. He was recently contacted by a leading youth science magazine because of his expertise in the subject, which deviates slightly from his usual research: the applications of nuclear magnetic imaging, particularly with reference to mine detection.

The article, on making music with vegetables, cites Suits in the following quote: "Who needs a traditional drum when you can pound on a pumpkin instead?"

Suits is noteworthy for "the sheer span of his teaching: from electronics to music," Pandey said. "Bryan is my next-door neighbor in the department, so I know first hand that he devotes countless hours designing his own lab projects for the students: not only is he brilliant, but he is also an incredibly devoted teacher."

For Suits, however, there is a huge, albeit intangible, return on investment. "I like interacting with the students; they are fun, he says. "Almost 10 years ago, I was on sabbatical, and I really missed that interaction.

"It's great to have great students."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.