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  March 27, 2000

Outstanding Teacher's Philosophy
is to Keep Things Simple

A dedicated teacher who transforms complex theory into practical, relevant demonstrations that enable students to master difficult concepts has received recognition both from his school and from the University as an outstanding teacher.

Spotlight on Teaching

John Ayers, an associate professor of electrical & systems engineering, received the 1999 Outstanding Teaching Faculty Award from the School of Engineering, and was also named a University Teaching Fellow last year.

The engineering teaching award, given to only one faculty member each year, recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching, advising, and development of innovative teaching methodoligie s. University Teaching Fellows are selected by peers based on teaching excellence and dedication to the teaching profession.

Ayers, who came to UConn in 1990, is characterized by students as a creative, effective teacher who makes himself accessible and infuses his instruction with enthusiasm.

"Dr. Ayers has the unique ability to inspire students to learn beyond the rote, question the material and, in the end, capture the essence of the discourse forever," says Milind Gokhale, a former doctoral student, now a research scientist at Princeton University. "His seamless presentation of complicated concepts not only revealed his excellent command over the course content but also a sincere commitment for the actual teaching process."

Ayers' teaching evaluations are among the highest in the department, and well above the averages of the School of Engineering and University.

"My teaching philosophy," says Ayers, "is keep things simple, be fair, and give students a general foundation for a rapidly changing world."

Effective teaching, he says, requires an instructor to foster a high level of student involvement in the subject matter. "Students learn most readily from demonstrations and experimentation, because they are actively involved. "In lecture courses it's a challenge to keep students actively involved. One way I've done this is by using in-class demonstrations. For our signals and systems course, I built a transistor modulator and rolled a cart full of equipment to class so I could demonstrate amplitude modulation on a spectrum analyzer and an oscilloscope. It was exciting to see people's faces light up as they suddenly understood a complex thing in a simple way."

Ayers' teaching forte embraces semiconducting devices - including transistors, used to receive radio transmissions; laser diodes, which translate the complex binary pits on a CD into music or video; and the microprocessors that power personal computers.

Unsatisfied with existing texts on the subject, Ayers developed customized textbooks for courses in Digital Integrated Circuits and Semiconductor Devices & Models. The text on integrated circuits, which took five years to write, covers digital circuits from an evolutionary viewpoint but also emphasizes computer simulation of circuits. His book on semiconductor devices marries fundamental principles explained in software simulations with the actual physical phenomena displayed by a transistor.

He also developed and refined two critical graduate courses in the latest semiconductor devices and fabrication technology.

Ayers' early love of science was inspired by his father, a professor of physical sciences at the University of Southern Maine. "He used to do demonstrations in his laboratory for my brother and me," says Ayers. "I remember being impressed by the Van De Graaf generator and its kilovolt lightning bolts."

Ayers earned his B.S. in electrical engineering at the University of Maine, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"It was at the University of Maine that I decided I, too, wanted to be a university professor. Here my inspiration came from several electrical and computer engineering faculty who showed me the fun of engineering," he says. "At Rensselaer, I became aware of the equal importance of research and teaching at a great university."

As an undergraduate, Ayers worked summers at the National Semiconductor plant in South Portland, Me. At the time, he dreamed of designing silicon chips. Later, he says, at Rensselaer, "I learned about a whole new world that existed beyond silicon. It was there I decided I wanted to work on novel semiconductor materials and devices."

Ayers now serves as a faculty advisor and mentor to students in the UConn branch of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In this capacity, he expands on his teaching role to inspire students to be aware of professional issues and responsibilities, thereby helping them prepare for life after college.

Nan Cooper