Engineering’s Paul Barnhart wins Wittke Award for superior teaching style

Paul Barnhart
President Barbara R. Snyder visited Paul Barnhart’s class recently, surprising him with an apple for his efforts in the classroom.

Paul Barnhart pushes fourth- and fifth-year students to become problem solvers before they leave for graduate school or engineering careers.

“I don’t ask them questions that have answers in the back of a book,” said Barnhart, a Case Western Reserve University associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering. “No professional engineer is asked to solve a problem that has an answer in the back of a book.”

Barnhart, who spent more than two decades working as an aerospace engineer with NASA contractors, is called “real,” “old school” and “caring” by his students, for his teaching style and willingness to help them in academics, campus life or their future.

He was seated with a class, taking notes while students presented their final design projects earlier this month, when he looked up to see President Barbara R. Snyder and Provost William A. “Bud” Baeslack had entered the classroom.

Eyes wide, he thought for just a second they’d come to hear the presentations, then wondered why they were stepping in. The students were amused.

Snyder asked the class to excuse the interruption, then announced Barnhart had won a Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

“Clearly, his students appreciate his emphasis on mastery!” Snyder said. She then read quotes from their nominations:

“I really like how real and challenging his lectures are,” one said.

“His objective is to provide senior students with opportunities to solve problems, both numerically as well as computationally. He believes that a well-rounded education is key…” said another.

“The professor does not look only at the short-term success of the student. Rather, he looks at the career path of the student,” added a third.

A fourth student pointed out that Barnhart has been nominated for a Wittke each of the three years he’s been an associate professor—a clear mark of students’ admiration. The student, somewhat exasperated, wrote, “He should win. Stop teasing him every year!”

Barnhart said he was humbled just to be nominated, much less win the award.

“I was an undergrad here, a student in this department,” he said. “I have been taught and mentored by a series of brilliant and accomplished professors, at least one of whom won this award.”

Barnhart earned a bachelor’s degree in 1983, a master’s degree in 1985 and, while working, his PhD, in 1995—all from Case Western Reserve.

Now, he teaches four classes for fourth-year students and two for graduates.

“I try to find the things that were most effective when I was a student, the methods and styles from all of the professors I had over all those years, and really emphasize what worked,” he said.

He spends up to seven hours preparing a one-hour lecture, and constantly looks for ways to engage his students, to make them want to come to class. Students must take notes. That’s by design.

“If the student reviews the notes and picks out the mistakes made in transcribing, it’s likely to stick,” Barnhart said.

Though his classes begin as lectures, they are mostly discussions in which students apply their ideas and logic to solve some pretty difficult problems, he said.

“I try to work with material that’s just beyond their reach. That’s why it’s harder, but they can get it,” he said. “It’s not daunting, it’s challenging.”

Barnhart also doesn’t answer their questions. He guides them, if need be, through the logical steps to find the answers themselves.

He keeps a hand in the engineering profession by consulting with aerospace companies, but teaching has become his passion.

“This institution, this department gave me the skills I needed,” Barnhart said. “My education has never let me down. My professors did an excellent job, and maybe I’m now paying them back by passing that on to the next generation.”

The Wittke Award, established in 1971, honors Carl Wittke, a former faculty member, dean and vice president of Western Reserve University. Each year, two Case Western Reserve University faculty members receive the award for their excellence in undergraduate teaching. He shares the honor with anthropology’s Eileen Anderson-Fye.