Dr. Christopher Norfolk awarded the Byars Prize for Excellence in Teaching Engineering Fundamentals

April 20, 2020

Dr. Christopher Norfolk was recently presented the Byars Prize for Excellence in Teaching Engineering Fundamentals from the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. This award honors Dr. Norfolk’s skills as a teacher, mentor, and one who is respected by students and faculty alike. It also acknowledges the many accolades he receives from our students each year.

Dr. Norfolk, who was promoted to Senior Lecturer this year, teaches Introduction to Chemical Engineering (ChE 1300) and Unit Operations Lab courses (ChE 3070 and ChE 4070).

Below you will find Dr. Norfolk’s teaching philosophy in his own words:

“My approach to teaching is likely different from many of the excellent lecturers and professors that practice the trade at Clemson. I find the traditional role of ‘teacher’ to be too confining to capture all of the things I am trying to do in my position. Instead, I consider myself to be the leader of a group of students, and I try to apply principals of good leadership to my interactions with my team. I find this paradigm to be very helpful.

The first thing any team requires is a clearly defined goal. The implicit goal for every class is that every student master the course material. However, I also spend a lot of time clearly communicating expectations, including allowing all students access to years’ worth of old exams, so that the final expectations are clear.

Another characteristic of a good leader is the realization that the success of the leader lies in maximizing the potential of the team. My greatest possible success is not in being a popular instructor, or in handling a large number of students, but in the extent to which my students master the course material. This philosophy suggests several tactical choices that I tend to use with my students. The first isto strive to meet each student ‘where they are,’ rather than where I think they should be. This means that the methods that I employ in the classroom are continually changing to accommodate learning styles of students, including hybrid in-person/online classes, in class exercises, providing opportunities for individual and group practice, etc.

I have also revised our Unit Ops Lab Manual, which more closely follows the current structure of the lab courses and gives students explicit instruction on the proper methods to estimate experimental uncertainty, based on the methods used by NIST. The manual also provides examples of the type and level of technical reports we expect from them. It is a critical resource to support our most important courses.

I view the task of learning as primarily belonging to the students; they are doing the hard work, and I am merely guiding them along the path. Part of my role is to remove, where possible, impediments to their work, so that they can progress as efficiently as possible. In this, timely communication is key, and so I make myself as available as possible to all students, both in-person and on-line; my students all have my cell phone number to facilitate this. I find this to be one of the most appreciated aspects of my teaching style. I also make it clear to students that I will support them through the learning process, doing whatever it takes to reinforce their efforts. With the knowledge that they have virtually limitless resources available to them, the responsibility for their progress in the course vests with the them. I find that forcing students to face this responsibility encourages more professional behaviors.

Since the students are doing all of the hard work of learning, part of my role as a leader is to keep them motivated. The students will get out of the course in proportion to the effort they put into the course, and so if I can keep them dedicated to the material, they will achieve the goal of mastery to a greater extent. This requires me to answer the ‘why’ question, rather than the ‘how’ question, keeping the purpose of the course as a central aspect. But in motivating students, as in motivating any team, I find that personal connection is most effective. As the saying goes (attributed to Theodore Roosevelt), ‘Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’

Finally, I do what I can to model leadership and dedication for my students. I am continually encouraging them to give more to the class, to press through their limits, and to reach the next level of understanding of the material. So I strive never to falter when they ask me for more, either in class or out, and I do my best to put none of my other activities above the needs of any student. I want to inspire loyalty in my team, the idea being that students can see my dedication to them in our everyday interactions. I want them to tirelessly work for me because they know I will tirelessly work for them.”

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