Jump to navigation

The University of Texas at Austin logo The University of Texas logo
The Cockrell School of Engineering logo The Cockrell School of Engineering logo

Dr. Philip S. Schmidt is honored with Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award

Professor Schmidt is explaining to ME 326 (sophomores) how to calculate the amount of work a gas can do when it expands in a cylinder, or how much work it takes to compress a gas, the foundation for determining how much power an engine can produce, or conversely, how much power it takes to run an air compressor or water pump. Those are fundamental questions in engineering thermodynamics.

Professor Schmidt is explaining to ME 326 (sophomores) how to calculate the amount of work a gas can do when it expands in a cylinder, or how much work it takes to compress a gas, the foundation for determining how much power an engine can produce, or conversely, how much power it takes to run an air compressor or water pump. Those are fundamental questions in engineering thermodynamics.


AUSTIN, TEXAS—September 16, 2009

Dr. Philip S. Schmidt of the Department of Mechanical Engineering has been honored with the Regents‘ Outstanding Teaching Award, awarded by The University of Texas Board of Regents. There are three classes of the award, and Professor Schmidt received the tenured faculty award, which carries with it a $30,000 remuneration.

The Regent's Outstanding Teaching Award

This is a career award presented annually to 20 outstanding senior faculty members who have made significant educational contributions to the university, both in the classroom and beyond through creative innovation and methodology in education. It is one of the highest honors bestowed by The University of Texas System for educational excellence. The award is “a symbol of the importance [the regents] place on the provision of undergraduate teaching and learning of the highest order.” Dr. Schmidt was recommended by Dean Gregory Fenves of the Cockrell School of Engineering, Chair Joe Beaman of the Mechanical Engineering Department, three current faculty members and three former students.


Dr. Schmidt came to the University of Texas at Austin in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He currently holds the Donald J. Douglass Centennial Professorship in Engineering and the title of University Distinguished Teaching Professor. In his letter of support, Dr. Joe Beaman, chairman of the ME department said, “Dr. Schmidt has, throughout his career, promoted innovation in engineering education, both within his own classroom and, through his organizational efforts, to his colleagues and the profession as a whole.”

In 2000, Dr. Schmidt initiated a department-wide curriculum development program called PROCEED, and is the current director of the program. Since its inception, PROCEED has provided major funding for the innovations in the ME undergraduate program, including redesign of 13 courses in the core curriculum, renovation and equipping of nine undergraduate laboratories and creation of a student portfolio system.

Educational Excellence

Professor Schmidt is known for his kindness, sense of humor, passion for engineering, love of history, and his carefully-honed ability to impart difficult information in an understandable and interesting manner. He teaches the highest enrollment class the department offers, the sophomore introductory course in thermodynamics, a required and technically-challenging course that serves as a gateway into higher level engineering courses.

After graduating from MIT (BS in Aeronautics and Astronautics), Dr. Schmidt worked at Bell Helicopter Company's wind tunnel for two years before attending Stanford's graduate program. Photo, circa 1962.

After graduating from MIT (BS in Aeronautics and Astronautics), Dr. Schmidt worked at Bell Helicopter Company's wind tunnel for two years before attending Stanford's graduate program. Photo, circa 1962.

In addition to numerous departmental and college-level awards, Dr. Schmidt has received virtually every university-wide teaching honor the University of Texas offers. These include selection as one of the 10 inaugural members of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers (1995), Blunk Memorial Professorship (1994), Piper Professorship (1994), Eyes of Texas Excellence Award (1997), Amoco Foundation Outstanding Teaching Award (1991), Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship Award (1991), the Ex-Students' Association University of Texas Excellence Award (1989), and most recently, the Chancellor's Council Outstanding Teaching Award (Spring 2009).

Dr. Schmidt has also received national recognition for teaching excellence. In 1992 he was awarded the Ralph Coats Roe Award from the American Society for Engineering Education (given annually to one mechanical engineering educator from the US and Canada), and in 1994 he was named by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education as Texas Professor of the Year (all disciplines, all colleges and universities in Texas).

Chancellor's Council Outstanding Teaching Award presented in 2009

The Chancellor's Council Outstanding Teaching Award from The University of Texas at Austin, recognizes a senior faculty member for a distinguished career in teaching at the undergraduate level. There is only one recipient each year of this highly-prestigious award. For a more detailed description of Dr. Schmidt's career and work, please read the ME news story published May 29, 2009.

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

This document was submitted to the selection committee. The web team felt any young teacher or parent would benefit greatly from reading it, so it has not been edited or snipped.

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

by Dr. Philip S. Schmidt

I have often been asked to express (succinctly!) my “Philosophy of Teaching.” Such a statement would imply a single overarching principle guiding what I do, and I find it not only difficult, but impossible, to distill my views on education into a soundbite. What I know about teaching and learning is largely empirical, i.e., based on my personal experience and feelings, and my approach to the subject is guided mainly by whatever seems to work. Thus, I would simply like to reflect on my 40 years of teaching college students (mainly engineering students), and what I think I've learned about learning. I will focus my comments on two main areas: motivating students and teaching values.

Motivating students

Learning isn't easy … it takes work, and learning engineering takes a lot of work. Students work when they're motivated. So how do you motivate them to use their precious time for the hard work of learning? If there is a single fundamental question in teaching, this is it. Here are some of the ways I've tried to motivate students.

Start with the real world and build the motivation to study from a "need to know." Traditional teaching in mathematically-based disciplines goes from the abstract to the specific. A general principle is presented and mathematical relations are derived which can then be applied to specific problems. The weakness in this approach for most students (and especially engineering students) is that they must accept on faith the premise that the general principle may actually be useful for something without actually knowing a priori what that something is. This is not motivating. A much better approach, in my view, is to present the students with a real-world problem typical of what they may encounter in their professional (or personal) lives and ask them what they need to know to in order to solve it. The problem may be one of current interest (how to power a home with solar energy) or perhaps one of historical interest (how to make a fighter plane fast enough to defeat the German Luftwaffe.) In either case, this approach provides an opportunity to go beyond the simple "mechanics" of how to solve the problem. Important current social and environmental issues (the need to develop sustainable energy sources) and historical events (the race between England and Germany to build the first jet engine) have, in my experience, been strong motivating factors in inducing students to study seemingly (but not actually) esoteric subject matter, such as the spectral distribution of solar energy or the influence of combustion temperature on the efficiency of a turbine. Over the years, I have built a substantial "show and tell" collection of dozens of engineering artifacts such as gas turbine blades, thermal protection tiles from the space shuttle, and coal samples from different parts of the U.S. I use these artifacts to put the "touch and feel" element into my classroom presentations and have cataloged the collection and made it available to my faculty colleagues for use in their lectures.

PROCEED: In 1998, I initiated a series of lunchtime "brown bag seminars" with my faculty colleagues in mechanical engineering to consider how our students were changing from earlier years and what we could do to motivate them in the new millennium. Most of us had grown up with our heads under the hood of a clunker, so had come to the study of engineering with some experience with real machinery. Most students of the new generation had only "virtual" experience; few came to us with an intuitive sense of how things work.

What emerged from those informal discussions was a concept paper for a new initiative called PROCEED, an acronym for Project-Centered Education. The paper pointed to the need to integrate theory with hands-on experience in the curriculum. Some of us began to employ the PROCEED strategy in our existing courses and several developed new courses built on this approach. The results were encouraging but progress was slow and many of our best ideas hit the wall for lack of money to implement them. It was evident that PROCEED was not going to make much of an impact without someone making a substantial commitment to it.

Therefore, in 2000 I had a long talk with myself about how I wanted to spend the last decade or so of my career, which up to that time had been the traditional mix of research (about half of my time), and teaching and administrative service (the other half.) While my research had been rewarding, I felt that my first love was the classroom and the opportunity to interact with students, especially undergraduates. I decided it was time to focus my efforts on fewer activities that could make a significant and lasting impact. Hence, I stopped taking new graduate students, began winding down my research activities, and focused instead on building the resource base for PROCEED and working with faculty to develop new teaching labs and project-centered courses. The details of PROCEED are described in other places, so I will not try to enumerate them all here. Suffice it to say that, with $1.25 million in corporate contributions, my colleagues and I have been able to implement this approach across the entire ME curriculum (13 core courses involving more than 30 faculty) and have built a program that has received international attention with over 20 papers published in the engineering education literature. PROCEED, more than any other effort in my career, best embodies my views on how to motivate, and therefore how to effectively educate, engineering students.

Teaching values

The subject of values, moral, ethical, and social, has received a lot of attention over the years, perhaps never more than now, with the outcry over the multiple crises facing our democratic society. The political powers that control public funding of education are calling for increased emphasis on the teaching of values in curricula at all levels, from elementary through graduate school. The easy answer to these calls is to simply create a few courses on ethical and moral values and require students to take them. Personally, I question the effectiveness of "teaching values" this way, and feel that it may even be counterproductive. In my own experience as a student, the teachers I admired most instilled values without "teaching" them in the formal sense of the word (see my article entitled “Great Teaching in a Great University.“) Here are some views on how to instill values.

Treat every student with the same respect that you expect from them. We are extremely fortunate at the University of Texas to have a student body that represents some of the finest young people in our society, both intellectually and personally. But many of them have some growing up to do (or as my wife likes to say, “God isn't finished with them yet.”) It is sometimes easy to get impatient with a student who exhibits immature behavior and to respond in a disrespectful way. This is the fastest way I know of to reinforce the insecurity that produces the undesirable behavior in the first place. One way I try to demonstrate the principle of mutual respect is to religiously (in the figurative, not literal, sense) maintain my published office hours and to reserve that time for students, irrespective of what other crises I have on my plate. I make it clear to students at the beginning of every semester that these hours are theirs and that they are welcome to come in for any reason, academic or otherwise. I also encourage students to make an appointment by email if they want to see me outside my regular office hours, and I try to respond whenever possible with an appointment the same or following day. When students do come to see me during office hours, they are often apologetic for taking my time and for asking "stupid" questions. I reassure them that they are the ones paying my salary and that very likely there are a dozen other students in the class with the same question, so they have no reason to apologize.

The one-on-one opportunities that occur during office hours provide some the most effective and rewarding teaching experiences for both me and the students. I ask them to articulate specifically what they are having trouble with, so I can get right to the heart of the matter and resolve the issue immediately. Then I take the opportunity to get to know them a little better: learn their names (especially important in the large classes I teach), where they are from, and what other interests they may have. It means a lot to a student when I see her in class and say “Hello Jan, how're the racquetball lessons going” instead of just nodding. And Jan will have no qualms about coming back next time she has questions.

Give students real challenges and reward them for overcoming obstacles. Project-centered learning is challenging for both students and instructors. We are dealing with real systems and the approach is open-ended (i.e., there's more than one path to an acceptable solution). The available information is often incomplete, in contrast with textbook problems in which everything the student needs to solve them can be found within the covers of the book. In my Thermal-Fluid Systems class, where students typically encounter complex open-ended systems problems for the first time in their academic career, I tell them up front to expect some frustration and trips down blind alleys. Nonetheless, open-ended problems are sometimes a trial for both the students and me. Comments on the end-of-semester course-instructor surveys, which are administered about a week before the end of the semester, often reflect this. However, a couple of weeks later, when the final project reports have been turned in and grades have been posted, I typically get a number of emails expressing relief and happiness that the hard work and persistence has paid off. It is notable that graduating seniors, in their exit interviews with the Mechanical Engineering Department chair, cite ME 343 as the most valuable course in their undergraduate education more frequently than any other course in the curriculum.

Persistence: I believe that history can be a powerful teacher of the principle of persistence in the face of failure. This is an important lesson for young people, many of whom have grown up in an environment of plenty where deferred gratification is not part of the vocabulary, and most of whom have never made less than a B in a course. Some of the greatest achievements in mechanical engineering (e.g., diesel and jet engines) came about only after years of multiple, often catastrophic, failures. When I introduce these innovations in my classes, I like to tell the stories of their inventors and the trials and tribulations they faced in bringing their inventions to fruition. These stories are more than just entertaining … they carry a powerful message that is central to the education of a professional engineer.

Then, there is what I call the "50th percentile" problem. It is tempting, as teachers, to focus most of our attention on the best of our students, the top 25% who sit in the first couple of rows, who get all the homework right without help, and make near-perfect scores on all the exams. Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate another group of students who, while not superstars, are hardworking and really want to do well. They are the ones who come to my office in embarrassment after failing the first exam wanting to know if there's any way they'll be able to pass. They generally have gotten off to a slow start, gotten behind the curve, and lost their self-confidence. I try to reassure these students that there's still a long way to go, both in my course and in their lives, and that early failure is not uncommon in our chosen profession. I sit down with them and go over their papers to pinpoint the source of their problems, then invite them to come to my office hours on a regular weekly basis before the next exam. This almost always results in improved performance, sometimes to an impressive degree, and can be a transformative experience for the student.

Because thermodynamics is a "gateway" course to the rest of the Mechanical Engineering curriculum, those students who fail to make the required C frequently come to me to ask whether they should even try to continue their engineering studies. For these students, I relate my own true story, that thermodynamics was the first (and only) course I failed in college and had to take over again. I also remind them of my "heroes," who made great contributions to the field of engineering after overcoming not only failures in the lab but the doubts of their supporters.

In my career at UT, I have attended virtually every commencement exercise for our engineering students. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing the faces and meeting the families of those I've been honored to teach as they walk across the platform to receive their diplomas. And of those, the “hook ‘em” sign from the 50th percentilers whom I talked out of quitting bring me the greatest pleasure of all.

Back to previous page

Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict