Gavin Garner: ASME
Graduate Teaching


While the video game "Guitar Hero" is a sensation on college campuses across the country, Gavin Garner uses it as the hook to engage students in the creative process at the heart of mechatronics. Here, ASME Graduate Teaching Fellow, Gavin Garner talks about the soaring success of his course and the experience of being awarded an ASME fellowship.

Q: Your course in Advanced Mechatronics has been a huge hit among students at the University of Virginia. To what do you attribute this success? Why do you think students are as engaged and excited about it as they are?

A: By giving students creative license in all of the open-ended projects, we were able to have a lot of fun in the course while still maintaining academic rigor. For example, my primary goals for the electric guitar project were to teach students how to model parts with CAD programs, use a CNC machine for rapid prototyping, and apply analog filtering circuits to signals from sensors. Of course, from the students' perspectives, their primary goals became to make the coolest looking guitar possible and to make it sound awesome by inventing custom effects pedal circuitry. The work was so engaging that they did not realize how much time and effort they wound up dedicating to the project. By the end, they had learned far more about solid modeling, rapid prototyping, and analog circuitry than I had originally anticipated.

Through this course, students studied the evolution of technology to understand how it has led to mechatronic systems and what the future may bring. I have found that by teaching the concepts behind how common devices work and how they have evolved, students become much more interested in studying the subject matter. By emphasizing the relevance of the material, I was able to make students more interested in learning about it.

Q: Your course has been featured in many news and popular media outlets (NBC, NPR, etc). Why do you think the public has taken such an interest in your work?

A: I think that the idea of an electric guitar project made the fields of mechanical engineering and mechatronics easily accessible to the general public. Most people enjoy some type of music played on electric guitars, and there is a sort of mystique and power associated with them. The other two projects (the digital synthesizer and the autonomous robot) were actually much more creative and sophisticated, but they involved more complex mechanical and electrical functions that are difficult for a lay audience to grasp.

Q: Before you applied for an ASME Graduate Teaching Fellowship, what value (if any) did you see in joining a society like ASME? How has your perspective changed--or has it-- since then?

A: Before I joined ASME, I knew that membership would provide valuable professional development opportunities. I continue to be impressed by the resources that ASME offers, including its journals, conferences, and networking opportunities. ASME membership has enabled me to connect with other engineers who share my interests and remain informed about important developments in my field. This Graduate Teaching Fellowship has encouraged me to become more involved with ASME.

Q: Given your experience, how would you describe the ideal candidate for the ASME Graduate Teaching Fellowship? What qualities should a candidate possess?

A: ASME Graduate Teaching Fellowship candidates should sincerely believe that they can make a difference by helping to shape the mechanical engineers of the future. I feel that some teachers (particularly in engineering fields) simply play games with their students - "solve these problems, jump through these hoops, and if and only if you do, you will get a good grade in the class." To me, teaching engineering is not a game. It is about preparing students to help make the world a better place. If you are passionate about the material that you are trying to teach and clearly explain its relevance, students will pick up on this and will be more interested in learning about it.

It is never a difficult task to make engineering challenging for students. There is and always will be an infinite supply of difficult problems for engineers to try to solve. I believe that effective engineering teachers must master their material to the point that they can present it as simply as possible to the students. Their goal should be to make all of the students comprehend as much of the material as possible. This takes a lot of hard work and creativity.

Q: What about the ASME Graduate Teaching Fellowship have you found most valuable?

A: Being awarded an ASME Graduate Teaching Fellowship has already had a profound influence on my career. It has given me the opportunity to experience what being a professor is really like. To be honest, I found that it was a lot more work than I had originally anticipated, but it was also highly rewarding. In designing the initial syllabus for my first course, I naively hoped to teach my students everything I had learned about mechatronics in just one semester. I also forced myself to cover new topics that, at the time, I was not as familiar with so that I too would grow through this experience. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to teach students the material in a way that they would understand it and also become engaged in it. I think that the success and attention that my very first course has already garnered has helped to reassure me that I'm on the right track. This ASME Graduate Teaching Fellowship has given me a head-start in my pursuit of a career in engineering education.

To me, teaching engineering is not a game. It is about preparing students to help make the world a better place.

Gavin Garner, ASME Graduate Teaching Fellow


March 2011