Smitesh Bakrania '03 thought he’d be an engineer. But then he found himself on another path, one punctuated by little Union moments that led him in a different (but also parallel) direction.
One moment: Ann Anderson, the Agnes S. MacDonald Professor of Mechanical Engineering, noticed Bakrania always prepared compelling presentations. She encouraged him to participate in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Old Guard Competition (he placed second).
Another: When preparing for the competition’s oral presentation, mechanical engineering professor William Keat “noted my presentation style was very academic,” Bakrania recalled. “He said I presented to educate rather than just inform.”
And another: He took a class with Anderson that required a group project with assigned roles and a peer-evaluation process.
“David Chapin ’02 commented that I possessed all the qualities of a teacher,” said Bakrania, who majored in mechanical engineering and minored in physics and math. “It is the combination of these experiences that made me consider teaching. The more I explored this path, the more I realized how much I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others and empowering them.”
Today, Bakrania is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Rowan University, which recently recognized him with The Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award. It honors one permanent faculty member with an outstanding record of teaching and a sustained record of commitment to student learning.
“I had the benefit of being taught by some incredible teachers. I know my attitude toward what I learn and pursue was noticeably altered because of these individuals,” he said. “I want to serve the same role in someone else’s journey.”
“If I can engage my students intellectually and feed their curiosity, they develop an intrinsic motivation for learning,” he continued. “This aspect of teaching is incredibly gratifying. When the product of your effort is a lifelong learner, the impact is ever-present.”
Which is why Bakrania is constantly reviewing, refining and refreshing his teaching to better serve his students.
He’s developed a number of apps to aid in this process, like Clausius and Pikme, both available for iPhone, iPad and Mac. Clausius enhances student understanding of the thermodynamic properties of water using interactive and intuitive charts (learn more at thermopropertycharts.com). Pikme fosters more lively conversation by randomly selecting students to participate in class. It has been downloaded more than 70,000 times.
“Pikme allows me, and apparently other instructors around the world, to directly engage with students at random and provide more dynamic and wholesome feedback during lectures,” Bakrania said.
Other innovations include animated videos of his own creation that help students better visualize concepts. (Bakrania loves graphic design, too, and uses it often to enrich lessons.)
“Every course I teach is characterized by my incessant effort to improve,” said Bakrania, who was also a Fulbright Scholar in New Zealand. “The driving force for these improvements is the fundamental belief that I can create a better learning environment for my students.”
This philosophy includes facilitating faculty development at Rowan and across higher education, too.
Bakrania is actively assisting colleagues with building better online course options because students often benefit from the flexibility these offer. He also regularly publishes and presents his work at engineering educational conferences, where he shares his own outcomes and learns from others.
And for the first time this year, he will lead a term abroad in Germany for engineering students. There they will learn about history, culture and engineering, and hopefully benefit from international immersion as Bakrania himself did.
“As an international student, I traveled from Tanzania to the U.S. to attend Union. This was an extremely discomforting experience, yet an educational one in the long run,” Bakrania explained. “I realized that immersing myself in a new culture provides tremendous opportunity for growth.”
Such opportunities for growth continue even now.
“It is an incredible honor to receive the Lindback Award. I take enormous pride in my profession and get tremendous joy from teaching. However, I know I have a long way to go and have a lot to learn,” Bakrania said. “The Lindback Award reassures me that I am on the right path on this long journey.”