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Professor Steven Richardson

October 2013

Winner of the Faculty Senate's 2013 Exemplary Teaching Award, Dr. Steven Richardson has instructed and inspired students in Howard's School of Engineering for 25 years. Trained as a theoretical physicist, he says he "embarked on an interesting experiment" when he joined the faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering. However, he soon discovered that his physics background prepared him especially well to develop innovative and effective approaches to teaching electromagnetic theory, solid state physics, and engineering analysis. These approaches evolved from the four principles that undergird his teaching philosophy:

1. " A good teacher is one, who in addition to being a clear lecturer, is also an outstanding coach, role model, listener, and motivator." Numerous students and peers attest to Dr. Richardson's clarity, generosity, and passion in the classroom. As one colleague remarked, Dr. Richardson is "particularly gifted in taking difficult scientific and mathematical concepts and systematically breaking them down into smaller, logical pieces of information that our students can process and digest." However, as a student observed, Dr. Richardson ensures that students understand not only the "mechanics" of the subject matter "but also the connection, relation and qualitative meaning of what is being studied." To students who don't understand at first, he makes himself readily available—after class, during office hours, and via email. But he expects his students to put in the time too. As one student observes, "He sets the bar high, but if you are willing to do the work you will succeed. After the completion of his course you will walk away with a fully stocked toolbox and ready to tackle any engineering problem that comes your way."

2. "Students need constant feedback and evaluation of their performance in learning the skills of a given subject." Dr. Richardson provides feedback through frequent exercises and exams. He explains, "Sometimes our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students think that learning science and mathematics is similar to learning the art of 'theoretical swimming,' where you simply sit on the side of a swimming pool and watch the instructor do laps. Of course, there is no such thing as 'theoretical swimming' as you have to dive into the pool yourself and learn how to swim by actually doing lots and lots of practice exercises." Initially, to provide his students with lots of practice and feedback, Dr. Richardson personally evaluated numerous problem sets throughout the term. However, when he realized that his research commitments would not allow enough time to grade all of the problems sets, he began posting the detailed solutions online via Blackboard. Then he informed students that at least half of the problems on exams would come from these problems sets so that students would work on the problem regularly.

3. "Technology has to be carefully integrated into our teaching for maximum effectiveness." Although his research group was the first to purchase and use Mathematica software in their teaching and research at Howard, Dr. Richardson believes that students still need face-to-face interaction with their professors. For instance, he believes that PowerPoint lectures are not the best way to teach students in a STEM course because teachers need to actively derive scientific and mathematical concepts during a lecture and students need to actively write and listen to those derivations.

4. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Because Dr. Richardson strives to be a role model in his teaching and research, many of his students have pursued careers in engineering at top agencies such as NASA and the FDA or companies such as IBM and J.P. Morgan-Chase. A case in point is an engineer who worked at Texas Instruments, Intel, IBM, and Advanced Micro Devices. He recalls, "Throughout my professional experience I have found that many of the important analytical problem solving skills that I needed to succeed in industry were first taught to me by Dr. Richardson when I was a student at Howard University." Some of Dr. Richardson's students have even become professors, including a provost at a state university who says that Dr. Richardson "profoundly influenced" him "as an educator and scholar." Another former student, who teaches in a department of Electrical Engineering, claims that he was repeatedly voted the "Most Outstanding Professor" in the department because he deliberately modeled his pedagogy after that of Dr. Richardson.

Dr. Richardson believes that his success in teaching goes "hand in hand" with his success in research. His research in computational materials science and computational chemistry has led to his selection as a featured participant in the The HistoryMakers, a Distinguished Summer Faculty Fellow at the Naval Research Laboratory, a presenter at conferences in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and, just this fall, one of the recipients of a multi-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to support a new science and technology center. Yet, Dr. Richardson points out, some of his most cited publications have come directly from research collaborations with his Howard graduate students. Dr. Richardson treasures such opportunities. "If through my teaching I have been able to encourage more students of color to pursue opportunities in science and engineering," he states, "then I can take great satisfaction and a measure of joy in that accomplishment for that is fundamentally why we faculty members work at a university."

 

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