Teaching heroes: Engineering professor encourages designs for the real world

Samuel Dickerson and student


For Samuel J. Dickerson, teaching engineering is “maybe closest to (teaching) music. We can talk about engineering all day, but the students have to go out there and play the pieces, so to speak — to go out there and build it, do it. Especially when we get into the advanced topics, it brings in so many disciplines.”

Dickerson, assistant professor in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the school’s Computer Engineering Undergraduate Program, brings creativity to his engineering design courses at all levels. This spring he received the school’s Outstanding Educator Award for having “innovated in all aspects of the (design) course: group formation, project selection, progress monitoring and project presentation. The impact of his hard work was immediately evident in the quality and depth of the designs and products created by the students.”

Last year, he and fellow Swanson School faculty member Renee Clark received one of eight Innovation in Education Awards from the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence designed “to support faculty proposals which aim to reinvent traditional classroom instruction” — in their case, through active learning methods that encourage student participation, even in lecture classes.

The year before that, Dickerson introduced the school’s first course on the “Internet of things,” focused on digital connectivity for home and wearable items. Student designs have included a coffeemaker that tweets when the coffee is ready; a smart plant-watering device that detects soil dampness; a lab-seat finder using temperature as its guide; and a trash can that tells maintenance personnel when it’s full so they don’t have to waste time knocking on every office door to check.

“Our students are really, really creative,” he says. “You get to see that a lot in engineering, especially in design class. We let them loose — ‘Go build something’ — and they come up with pretty creative technologies. The students come in fresh out of high school and after two to three years they are engineers.”

Dickerson himself is still innovating today, working on adding an ethical dimension to his Internet of things course. That’s because a smart hacker, seeing the coffeemaker’s tweet or the trash can’s signal go silent, can tell whether the house or office is occupied or empty.

Dickerson joined Pitt in fall 2015, after earning all his degrees here and spending 2012-2015 working on the start-up he founded, Nanophoretics, which designed integrated circuits for devices that detect pathogens.

“It was really exciting,” he says, “but the start-up life is not as exciting when you have kids on the way.”

This experience nonetheless encouraged Dickerson to up the complexity of the projects in the senior design class he has revamped, which includes a mock real-world design task. He aims “to use research-proven strategies to improve student learning.”

“It’s exciting, especially with engineering, to see the lightbulb go on with students and to make the connection” between classroom learning and these real-world activities, he says. “Why do we make them learn all this calculus and physics? Their excitement is exciting for me.”

Still, “there isn’t any secret” to great teaching, he insists. “It’s just spending time preparing and spending time with the students. My favorite method is what I do in the advanced design courses: one-on-one with every student. Where the designs are larger in scope, one-on-one time is necessary with every group.”

Pressed for his teaching philosophy, Dickerson relents: “Care about your students. That’s the big secret. If you care about your students, you will work hard at it, put the time into preparing.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.