Materials Science and Engineering Professor Frank Ernst, recipient of a 2017 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching, is sure his students know he considers them his “colleagues in science” by making himself approachable and seeking their most creative ideas.
That “open-door” teaching method stems from his own experience. Ernst was born, raised and educated in Germany, where he encountered what he described as “a hierarchical system” of teaching at the University of Göttingen, commonly known as Georgia Augusta, a public research university.
“Professors were very unreachable,” he said. “I believe there has to be the element of critical, creative, scientific thinking and being recognized as a scientific mind respected by professors—not just as a learner, but also as a young colleague who can provide a fresh outlook on science.”
Ernst, the Leonard Case Jr. Professor of Engineering, is chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, director of the Case Center for Surface Engineering and faculty director of the Swagelok Center for Surface Analysis of Materials. He will be recognized along with other award winners during commencement ceremonies May 21.
Ernst has developed his own more collaborative style since joining the Case Western Reserve faculty about 17 years ago. He meets weekly with everyone in his research group, for example, and uses those meetings as teaching opportunities.
“I want to establish a context in which students can open up,” he said. “We can learn a lot from the intellectual resource we have in our graduate students, but that requires we give them self-confidence.”
Ernst has also transformed the traditional lab report, in which science students write about how they conducted an experiment and the result. The lab reports Ernst expects are well-known to his students as “rethinks.” Rethinks were introduced in the three five-level graduate courses he teaches on microcharacterization of materials.
“In a rethink, everything that could have been written without even coming to the laboratory is unimportant,” he said. “Instead, the students individually focus on a couple of observations they have made that were unexpected or surprising. They may even question apparently trivial aspects of established experimental procedures or instrumentation. Then, they apply the knowledge they acquired in the course to engage in a deep, creative and critical scientific discussion of these topics. Much different from old-fashioned lab reports, this new concept has stimulated students to come up with remarkable ideas. I take pride and pleasure in studying these rethinks and providing extensive feedback.”
His approach to modernize traditional lab reports resonates with students.
“Rethinks deepen our understanding of the topic and build our confidence, even when some ideas may be slightly missing the mark,” wrote a graduate student who nominated Ernst for the award. “His feedback is always given in a respectful manner, whereby he further demonstrates his passion for the topic and explains what we might have missed or helps us dive even deeper along a path toward new discoveries.”
Another graduate student nominator praised Ernst for his collaborative teaching and passion for the subject matter.
“From the respect and care he showed to me and all students, it was easy to become involved and invested in the material,” the student wrote. “He cared about developing us into the best scientists and engineers as we could be, and personally took the time he needed to ensure our mastery of the material.”