Alper Uzun’s Teaching Experience at Koç University

"I believe that students should not memorize the course material. They should understand why that subject is really important, and how and where they can use it in their professional lives. This is why I always start the semester with a discussion on the big picture..."

Assist. Prof. Alper Uzun
College of Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering
College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Award, 2016

I joined Koç University in August 2012, since then I have been teaching undergraduate level core chemical and biological engineering courses and undergraduate/graduate level elective courses. I can not say that I have years of experience in teaching, I am still learning how to teach. Here are some points that I try to do when teaching.

Be happy! I guess being in a happy mode during teaching is very helpful in keeping the students engaged with the class. I try my best to set aside my daily workload and worries before entering the classroom. I only focus on what my students really expect from me as an instructor and how I can meet those expectations. If teaching is an essential part of my job, for sure it is, then I should do my best.

I have a happy relationship with my students. I respect them and expect them to respect me as well. I let them feel that I could have been a very good friend, if I was not their instructor. As a part of this I try not to have any barriers so that they can feel free to participate in the class rather than feeling like a guess in an uncomfortable environment. At the beginning of the class, I try to have an eye contact with each one of them. Most of the time I start the class with a joke on recent news or a discussion on an unrelated topic, it could be on anything as long as they enjoy talking about. I am willing to negotiate with them when setting the due dates for homeworks so that they feel I respect their social lives and I am aware that my course is not their only one.

I consider teaching as acting in a soap opera. I play with my voice, up and down, continuously move around in the class, have eye-contact with my students to keep them alive. I teach engineering courses, there are too many equations, with many reasons to get scared and not to like the class. I try my best to emphasize what those equations are for within the concept of the big picture, try to describe the importance of them giving real life examples, such as walking on a street in Las Vegas, finding a nice sunbed on the beach, and so on. I try to help them realize why that concept is important. I work on having a welcoming body posture when they are asking questions. And most of the time, I try to repeat the question I receive to make sure that everybody can follow the discussion. I want them to have no barrier with me. Even if it is a simple or a silly question, I try not to discourage them and try my best to give a proper answer. If I feel that they could not understand any part of the class, I do not hesitate to repeat the subject in the expense of staying behind of my class material that I was planning to complete that day. I try to give them examples from my industrial work experience as well. I talk on work ethics, working environment, and relationships with technicians, peers and especially with the bosses. Whenever possible I assign them projects in a way as if they are preparing it for their future bosses: they need to set proper performance goals at the beginning and try to work hard to successfully meet those goals until the deadline.

I believe that students should not memorize the course material. They should understand why that subject is really important, and how and where they can use it in their professional lives. This is why I always start the semester with a discussion on the big picture. For instance, this discussion can be on a chemical plant layout: about raw materials, need for their separation and purification, their conversion into desired and undesired products, separation and purification of these products, setting and controlling the process variables, marketing, safety, and ethics issues. Then, for each section of what I draw on the board as a plant lay out I try to match them with the contents of their departmental courses, emphasizing why they are important. This way I try to give them a feeling of their profession as an engineer, specifically focusing on how my course can help them in their development.

I guess if you ask any of my students about the most characteristic part of my courses, I believe, the answer will be the midterms. Midterms are special for me. I use them to learn more about my students, what they could really understand out of my course, what part of the class materials were not well understood. Well, these could be the aim of all exams, but I try to get these answers in a different way. In my midterms, everything is open. They can bring any class related material: textbooks, assignments, class notes, anything. There is no time limit either. If they need they can stay overnight till next morning, but usually they give up after about six-seven hours. Especially during the first midterm, I try to visit each of them and spent a few minutes to discuss how he/she is doing, and ask them if he/she needs any clarification or help. Then I try to show him/her where to look at in the textbook to understand the concept in a better way. When doing this, I am extra sensitive to be fair to all of them, not to solve the question but to show the way to go. I believe this is in a way similar to the flipped classroom concept. Students come to the midterm well-prepared and they have all kinds of resources in their hand with plenty of time to solve the questions. All they need to do is to concentrate and try to link the concepts of the course with the questions. The questions are not that straightforward, instead, I try to ask questions related to real life. For instance, they can find themselves solving a crime scene in a murder case trying to find when a murder took place. To be able to solve these questions they should not only know the subject but also learn how to find information on different concepts and link them with each other, just like a real engineer does. This practice has been quite successful in the last few years and I see that the students enjoy having such open-style midterms. This way I can also spend some extra time with each of my students having a chance to assess their level of understanding on the subject matter.