Culture in the Thomas Lab
My goal in teaching is to not just teach information, but to help students see how they can apply this information in their careers. My engineering teaching philosophy, in both course work instruction and mentoring independent research, is thus that students need to be provided materials to learn and practice concrete technical facts and skills, and also need to be challenged with the opportunity to solve problems that require them to integrate a wide range of technical skills from their entire curriculum. To my thinking, technical facts and skills include not just quantitative engineering tools and scientific knowledge, but also the vital career skills such as how to read and interpret scientific papers, keep a lab notebook, mentor other students, self-evaluate one’s abilities, and communicate original research. To support my philosophy, I create an active learning environment in all my classes, where students do weekly homeworks or labs, and prepare and participate in class discussions. I ensure that all learning objectives for the course are directly practiced at multiple levels of increasing complexity and independence.A secondary goal is to teach each student to believe in him or herself, and to help him or her reach his or her personal objectives. I especially want to reach out to students who have not discovered their full potential because of obstacles they or others have placed in their way. Because of this, I try to be very encouraging and enthusiastic, to help students have fun while working really hard and facing new challenges.
My lab is organized to maximize your involvement with mentoring at all levels. While I directly mentor all of my lab members, each student also has a more senior lab member mentoring him or her directly, and is encouraged to provide such mentoring to a junior lab member once he or she has become established. I encourage these mentoring relationships as well as peer-to-peer mentoring and team work in weekly mini-group meetings, where lab members share their latest results, interpretations, obstacles and plans.
My goal is that each person obtain rigorous training early so that I can trust that he or she is doing good work, but then to encourage increasing independence, especially for senior members. I always want to hear about your results and plans, but as you progress through your training, I will be doing less instructing and more listening and providing ideas for you to evaluate and then take or leave. I look for graduate students to define the problems as well as solve them for the later parts of their theses.
I also encourage lab members to organize their thoughts in written form early and often, to help them make sure their experiments are directed towards the long-term goals of solving important problems, publishing, and making progress on their degrees. The undergraduates update their written report quarterly, while grad students are encouraged to do so monthly. The updates can take whatever form helps you organize your thoughts (e.g. bullet points or essay), but should include a statement of the hypothesis or design you are testing, the significance of the work, the figures and their interpretation, and your ideas of what still needs to be done. For each update, I meet with you to discuss it after I've had time to read it and think about your project.
Finally, I meet annually with all lab members for a "take it to the next level" meeting, in which we discuss your short-term and long-term career goals, what you need to do to meet these goals, and what I can do to help you.
The lab celebrates graduations or takes a lab outing at least once a year. We have gone hiking, bowling, roller skating, and out to dinner.