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His boundless enthusiasm for structural engineering is ever-present, his passion to inspire students an integral part of his personality. It’s easy to understand why Stephen Kurtz, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is the winner of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ ExCEEd (Excellence in Civil Engineering Education) New Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award.

Lafayette civil engineering majors past and present aren’t surprised at his selection as national recipient of the prestigious honor.

“Everybody wants to be in his classes; he makes them really exciting,” says Brian Jennings ’05 (Old Bridge, N.J.).

“He’s so enthusiastic. You walk into his class and it’s instant excitement; you don’t stop for 50 minutes,” says Marquis Scholar Susan Bowers ’05 (Williamsport, Pa.)

Nate Tyson ’04 (Easton, Pa.), now a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, took four courses with Kurtz.

“Learning from him was truly enjoyable, although his classes were always challenging. He has infectious enthusiasm for the courses he teaches, which are always well organized. His individual lectures are always well prepared, clear and efficiently structured,” says Tyson, who also earned an A.B. degree with a major in geology.

“Faculty have an appropriate tension between research and teaching, and what this award helps emphasize is the role of the professor as teacher and facilitator of knowledge,” says James O’Brien, head of the ASCE Excellence in Civil Engineering Education program. He notes that this year’s competition featured particularly strong candidates for the award.

The 150-year-old ASCE is the nation’s oldest engineering organization. Its journals are the premier source for academic research in civil engineering.

Kurtz has always had his enthusiasm for engineering and passion for teaching, but the young professor has honed his skills over the years.

“There was a time when I felt the only thing one had to have [to be a good teacher] was to ‘give a damn an awful lot,’ and that was about it — I felt teaching was purely an emotional thing,” recalls Kurtz, who advises the student team that advanced to this week’s National Steel Bridge Competition in Orlando, Fla.

“In time I’ve come to learn that at the other end of the spectrum, you actually have to have techniques because there’s a way to teach effectively; there’s a science to it, a method to it. But you can’t use techniques unless you are emotionally connected to what you’re doing. In other words, when you stink in the classroom, it’d better hurt. I think the emotional investment is a big part of successful teaching,” he says.

Kurtz, who has written and rewritten his philosophies of teaching over the years, says the qualities he strives for are enthusiasm, emotional investment, knowledge, and creative analysis and synthesis, traits he says are prerequisites of effective teaching.

“Enthusiasm may be considered a character trait, but I consider it to be a teacher’s duty. I want my students to be thrilled by the subjects that we study. This can only happen if I am thrilled by every subject, all the time,” he says.

“If I have a bad day in class, it brings me down for a long time,” adds Kurtz. “My very definition of a good day comes down to how I did in the classroom.”

He doesn’t have many bad days, according to his students, who all cite enthusiasm first when listing Kurtz’s qualities.

“He is so enthusiastic, it makes you that way as well,” says Jennings, president of the Lafayette student chapter of ASCE.

In explaining his creative analysis and synthesis philosophy, Kurtz says “exceptional engineering innovators are always marked by their ability to use [the physical and economic] laws in ways never before imagined. You can’t be creative if you’ve never created. An integral part of the teaching process must require that learners make something out of what they know, either literally or figuratively.”

He supports his philosophies of teaching with a half dozen techniques. The first he mentions — and the first that students cite — is the use of physical apparatus. The models he brings to class or sometimes creates on the spot have proven to be very effective.

“I teach in an area in which I believe the most substantial gap that needs to be bridged by students is the ability to see [what they’re learning]. In structural engineering, the ability to visualize is crucial to understanding.”

Building the models supports his creative analysis and synthesis philosophy, allowing students to create their own demonstration models.

“Outside the laboratory observers hear saws, see sparks, and smell oil, mistakenly perceiving a vocational program,” says Kurtz. “Yet the purpose is not to build the vocational skills of welding, drilling, or cutting. The purpose is to enable students to build structures. Students who can build structures are better able to draw, describe, model, and analyze them.”

His classes are full of interaction, with Kurtz prompting students to solve problems. Formulating the right questions to ask, those that get to a specific point in his lesson in the most effective and efficient way, takes time.

“I’ve gone to his office and seen him talking to himself with notes all over the place and asked ‘what are you doing?’ He said ‘practicing for the lecture tomorrow.’ He really cares about what he is doing,” says Jennings.

Kurtz has consistently earned high marks for his mentorship of students, be it in class or as an adviser.

“He’s willing to spend as much time with you as you need to understand,” says Bowers.

For Guy Decker ’04 (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Kurtz’s mentorship changed his career path.

“I wasn’t sure of whether I wanted to attend graduate school,” he says. “Professor Kurtz wasn’t even my adviser, but I talked to him quite a bit outside of class about my future and he got me to see that graduate school was the best direction for me. He made me want to be a structural engineer.”

On the research side of his career, Kurtz led an effort that resulted in a $243,526 National Science Foundation grant to establish a engineering laboratory that has opened up new learning opportunities in several areas for civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, and mathematics students.

He also uses a new strong floor in Acopian Engineering Center that enables students and faculty to conduct structural testing, a vital part of structural engineering research.

Categorized in: Academic News