As the Associate Dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education and a well-respected professor within the Samueli School of Engineering, Doctor Donald Dabdub is used to receiving recognition for his work as a professor. However, there are certain accolades that hold a special place in Dr. Dabdub’s heart, such as being named Professor of the Year by his students.

Dr. Dabdub explains that every year during National Engineers Week (E-Week), the Samueli School of Engineering has a tradition where students nominate their favorite faculty members to be honored at the annual Engineering Awards Banquet. Administrators, department heads, and the faculty themselves have no say in the vote, making it a genuine expression of student opinion.

At this year’s E-Week celebration, the students named Dr. Dabdub Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor of the Year, and the significance of this honor isn’t lost on him. When asked about the award, Dr. Dabdub explains, “From my perspective, it adds more value to the award when it’s the students who are voting.” 

Throughout his 25-year career at UCI, Dr. Dabdub has had plenty of opportunities to connect with the student body. For the last five years, he has been involved in UCI’s administration with the goal of improving student outcomes and ensuring that every student has access to the resources and support they need. 

Speaking about his decision to take a more active role on campus, Dr. Dabdub explains, “Sometimes from our office as faculty, we do not see some of the things that happen to our students.” Whether they are struggling with food insecurity, homelessness, or other challenges, there are students on campus who have the odds stacked against them. According to Dr. Dabdub, realizing this was an eye-opening experience that drove him to “be in the front lines where battles are fought.”

Still, for all of Dr. Dabdub’s experience teaching and working with students, UCI’s recent transition to a remote learning environment is an unprecedented change. As faculty work to create an engaging digital classroom environment, Dr. Dabdub offers some of the strategies he is implementing during this unusual time.

1) Making Good Use of the Camera

Dr. Dabdub stresses the importance of making the most of the camera when filming lectures or video conferencing. He advises faculty to elevate their webcams to avoid any awkward angles and help them make direct eye contact with the camera. While Dr. Dabdub admits that it can be tempting to look away when there is nobody else in your recording studio, it’s important to “make sure that you are looking right into the camera over your laptop or recording device so that the students have the feeling that you’re talking to them.”

2) Keep the Screen Active

Dr. Dabdub acknowledges that student engagement is a major challenge when teaching in a remote setting. He reminds faculty that students are used to the immediate production of media, so capturing their attention requires more effort. According to Dr. Dabdub, “the last thing that you want to do is broadcast a monotonous tone of voice and only change [your slides] every three or four minutes.” To keep students interested, he recommends keeping your screen active by adding in animations, switching between your face and your presentation, pointing to different places on your slides, or perhaps adding some gamification aspects to the lecture in a judicious manner. 

3) Ask ”Micro Questions”

In a digital teaching environment, it is often difficult to assess if your students are absorbing the lecture material. Dr. Dabdub explains that when you are teaching in person, you can look at your students’ expressions and determine their level of comprehension. However, “it’s much harder to read the audience when you are online, so you have to be a little bit more proactive to engage the students.”  He suggests checking in on your students by asking “micro questions,” or questions that ask ‘Does this make sense? Do you get that? Are you with me?.’ Student responses to these questions will help you determine the areas that you need to go back to and clarify.

4) Expect Difficulties

Dr. Dabdub also advises faculty to anticipate technical difficulties as they are inevitable in this new teaching environment. For instance, when it comes to hosting Zoom lectures, he recommends installing Zoom on multiple devices so you can quickly resume teaching if something goes wrong. “There’s nothing worse than having 100 students in the class and then you have 20 minutes of technical difficulties,” he laughs. Dr. Dabdub encourages faculty to mentally prepare for hiccups and find humor in the situation, so they can get back on track more quickly.

5) Don’t Try to Teach Everything

Finally, and most importantly, Dr. Dabdub reminds, “Nobody can teach everything, even in the best possible circumstances. So, instead of trying to teach absolutely everything and to be as comprehensive as humanly possible, focus on conveying to the students that you’re teaching them to love the subject.” One of the best ways to accomplish this is by connecting course materials to things that your students may encounter outside the classroom. By encouraging students to see why various topics are important and relevant outside of the university setting, faculty can appeal to the innate curiosity that all students have. Dr. Dabdub explains when students choose to learn and explore independently, “their own curiosity increases, and they will be able to race to the next level.”

Conclusion:

Even in this stressful time of adjustment, Dr. Dabdub’s thoughtful advice demonstrates exactly why his students have named him Professor of the Year. On behalf of the entire UCI family, we would like to congratulate Dr. Donald Dabdub and thank him for everything that he has done for students and faculty alike.

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