Faculty Experiences - Keith Stolzenbach

Keith Stolzenbach - photoKEITH STOLZENBACH

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Interview Topics

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the University better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?


Different learning styles

Information literacy



Class web site

Challenging Students and Increasing their Confidence to Learn

My goal is to instill students with the confidence they need to use what they’ve learned to build a foundation for future learning.

What’s important to me in my teaching is challenging the students and increasing their confidence so they can become lifelong learners. There are various ways to teach students content. My goal is to instill students with the confidence they need to use what they’ve learned to build a foundation for future learning.
I use a mix of conventional technologies in my courses. I’m an engineering professor, so I use the blackboard as a means to communicate important equations and content to my students. I don’t believe students learn as effectively unless they copy down information as I interact with them. The blackboard and overheads facilitate this interaction with my students. I intersperse these two methods with visuals via PowerPoint. I aim to combine overheads, blackboard, and PowerPoint in a balanced way throughout my courses. My course evaluations reveal that using all three modes together best promotes student learning.

I have found PowerPoint to be polarizing when used alone to teach courses, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t use it. We had one very distinct experiment in a large freshman course that I teach with four other faculty. For a couple of years only one of us used PowerPoint, and then in one year everyone shifted to using the software. I coordinated that class, and I looked at the evaluations for it. It was clear from the evaluations that PowerPoint tended to polarize the students. There was a segment of the class—visual learners perhaps—who really liked PowerPoint. Then there was another segment of the class who fell asleep. I think some people find the PowerPoint sequences of flashing images and bullet points to be a less effective means of learning. This is not to say that PowerPoint doesn’t have its place in teaching, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. That experiment definitely led me to balance my course with various teaching methods.

I also use class web sites in two of my courses to post administrative materials or supplemental readings. Students react positively to the web sites because they easily convey important information. I don’t know if the sites enhance learning in any other way.

A future goal of mine is to incorporate more mixed media into my presentations. Availability of materials makes this a challenge. MIT has this entire system called Open Courseware. I can go there for my courses and post their material for my students. They have an open courseware philosophy. They offer traditional material but make it available electronically. The cluster program (where I teach this large course) had some courses that experimented with very advanced web-based teaching tools. They spent an incredible amount of time and resources on these web tools, but in some cases it just didn’t work. There are no free lunches when creating online versions of teaching materials, but I do think we will see more of these online resources in the near future.

In terms of technology and teaching, I would emphasize one other thing that could be an issue for the university to address. As the use of technology increases, there is a residual population of students (many commuters) who might have computer access. But my experience is they are being left behind in terms of some combination of hardware, software, and personal capabilities for the technology. I encounter enough cases of students who have trouble with format issues, compatibility issues, and the ability to download large files. These are all accessibility issues. For instance if a student’s primary means of online access is only a telephone line at home, than I can’t post a 10 MB file and expect them to download it. It’s not just information literacy—which implies a student’s ability to use technology. I don’t think literacy is as big of a limitation as technology access from home for some students. Access to technology is a significant area for the university to address in order to ensure that students are truly learning.

As a parting note, I’d like to mention that successful teaching is not dependent upon technology. I referred earlier to the cluster course I teach with additional faculty. The one faculty member in our group who’s taught this course going on five times now and consistently gets the most favorable comments from students (and he teaches a semi-technical science course), well, he never touches anything to do with technology. None of us in the group who use technology get anything close to what he gets in terms of positive feedback. He stands, and he talks, and he occasionally writes on the blackboard. He is living proof that you can teach well and have students respond without technology. He is supremely organized and enthusiastic. His personal spirit of enthusiasm for the material comes through in his spoken lectures like electricity that goes directly through him to the students. It’s an enviable talent.

Oral Interview, April, 2006