Among undergraduate electrical engineering students and faculty, few, if any, courses are considered harder to take – and teach – than those on electromagnetic fields.
EMFs are physical fields created by electrically charged objects carried along by electric currents. These fields, which are naked to the human eye, are the reasons light exists, radios transmit sound, cell phones work, satellites communicate, and radars scan clouds for airplanes.
But the topic is abstract and grounded in math, with no easily touchable or perceptible physical examples to illustrate the concept – all of which make electromagnetics difficult to teach.
“There are more than 300 undergraduate electrical engineering programs in the country and I’ve never come across anyone at any of those programs who’s found this any easy concept to teach,” said Tony Maciejewski, head of Colorado State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It’s the class all undergraduate electrical engineering students struggle with, nationally.”
At CSU, the story is different. And that’s primarily thanks to Branislav Notaros, a professor and researcher who specializes in electromagnetics and teaches CSU’s undergraduate courses on electromagnetic fields and devices.
Notaros joined CSU in 2006, bringing with him new approaches to teaching and learning about electromagnetic fields.
Since then, student attendance in ECE 341, a required course has doubled, and more undergraduates are taking ECE 342, a follow-on elective. The passing rate has increased by about 50 percent and the average final grade for those courses has risen by about one grade point – all while keeping the bar high.
“This increased interest by students in these courses and the fact they understand it better is all because of (Notaros),” Maciejewski said. “He is somehow able to make it understandable to students. They love taking his courses.”
Teacher, scholar and researcher
Notaros describes himself as a teacher/scholar and researcher. He integrates his research into teaching and uses his teaching to enhance his research.
He runs an active research group and is leading projects supported by the National Science Foundation to develop new methods for EMF computation on supercomputers, re-design magnetic resonance imaging – MRI – machines, and measure and analyze snowflakes using special cameras, radar, and EMF simulations to name a few.
But teaching is his passion and he spends a lot of his time preparing material, improving instructional methods and writing textbooks and assessments.
He attributes this to the professors he had while attending college in his native Serbia.
“I had great teachers and I wanted to provide the same education to my students,” Notaros said.
His textbook, Electromagnetics, is considered one of the best in the field, Maciejewski said, and is widely used by faculty and organizations around the world.
“(Notaros) is very well known for his research in this area as well,” Maciejewski said. “He has a deep understanding of this subject and is very passionate about electromagnetics. This enables him to teach the subject in a way that makes students learn and care about the topic.”
This “teaching and research are one” philosophy has resulted in several high-profile awards for Notaros over his career, including two in the last six months.
In June, he was honored with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Undergraduate Teaching Award.
With nearly half a million members in 160 countries, IEEE lays claim to being the “the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology.” The organization contains many professional sub-groups – IEEE Societies – that issue awards, which carry their own prestige.
But Notaros’ award was from the main organization, not a sub-group, making it one of the highest honors an IEEE member can receive.
On Nov. 20, Notaros was named the 2014 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Colorado Professor of the Year. The U.S. Professors of the Year program honors outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country and is open to all undergraduate teachers at any university or college in the United States.
High marks for teaching
At the end of each semester, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering surveys students in all of its courses. The goal is to gather feedback about how to improve teaching and instructional methods as well as course content.
Notaros’ students routinely rate both his teaching and courses very high. He, in fact, has never received a low “grade” from students during his years at CSU.
“Once students take a class from (Notaros), they want to take his other classes,” Maciejewski said. “We’ve seen it over and over.”
Both former and current students attribute Notaros’ high marks to his enthusiasm for electromagnetics and a teaching style that mixes humor and high expectations.
In a letter of support to the Carnegie Foundation, Aaron Kim, who graduated from CSU in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, wrote that he dreaded taking Electromagnetics because it was rumored to be so difficult.
He went on to say the rumors were accurate, but he loved the class.
“To this day, I remember fondly the adventures of that class. Professor Notaros quite simply infected us with his enthusiasm for electromagnetics…..His ability to take such a frustratingly difficult, and not to mention dry, subject and transform it into a lively and intensely intriguing learning experience is unparalleled.”
In his letter, Christopher Robbiano, who graduated in 2011, wrote that the respect Notaros gained not only because he was a great educator but also an incredibly charismatic and caring individual was astounding.
Robbiano described his former professor’s teaching this way:
“His ability to provide understanding of these topics to undergraduate students is executed with much of the same grace that a professional skier has while making 50 foot jump look trivial.”
Nabeel Moin, a junior in electrical engineering, echoes those sentiments. He took the required Electromagnetics course last year and then opted to enroll in Notaros’ Antennas and Radiation elective course this semester. Moin also worked in Notaros’ lab over the summer.
“He genuinely enjoys teaching and puts a lot of humor in his classes,” Moin said. “His classes aren’t trivial though. He has very high expectations for his students. A lot of people start slumping classes halfway through a semester, but not his. His classes are always full.”