Prof. David Orser Receives Penrose Teaching Award

Teaching professor David Orser is the latest recipient of the Penrose teaching award. The award is a timely recognition of the energy and engagement with which Orser has approached his responsibilities that include lab and experiential learning curriculum development, and training for teaching assistants, in addition to teaching his regular load of classes. 

Orser’s teaching and lab implementation methodology recognizes that students in our department come from diverse backgrounds, and they vary in their levels of preparation for the complex curriculum. Courses in ECE, and the engineering profession broadly, require that students have a strong foundation in math and science, develop problem solving and communication skills, and be skilled at evaluating uncertain data.

Prof. Orser’s teaching philosophy centers around two fundamental ideas: “First, we must meet students where they are. Second, by the time they leave our classrooms, students must be in the lead.”

To ensure student success, David uses what he calls, “four key strategies: layered resources, alternative perspectives, progressive curriculum, and student-driven open-ended projects.” The extra materials that Orser provides and gathers in his courses and labs, what he refers to as layered resources, support students’ understanding of concepts, and answer their questions as they learn a new topic. Knowing that our students’ diversity is a dynamic element, he prepares materials that approach the subject matter from various perspectives. He recognizes that students are on an educational journey, moving up from simply absorbing complex information to analyzing, synthesizing, and applying it to solve problems. Courses led by Orser are based in open-ended project-based experiential learning, where students have the opportunity to choose a project that interests them. They work on it, applying what they learn, to create something, and then analyze its performance. The classes culminate in a project showcase, and the entire journey is one where a student evolves from being a follower, to someone who occasionally needs a guide, to finally being a leader themselves. 

Ever conscious of the circumstances that ensure the success of the classes he leads and coordinates, Orser acknowledges the support he has received from the excellent materials he has been able to borrow and build upon. The University uses Student Rating of Teaching (SRT) as a measure to evaluate the courses it offers and gather feedback on teaching. The positive feedback that Orser has received in the SRTs over the years on several key points (course preparation, clarity of teaching, relevant feedback to students, respect for everyone in the classroom, and student recommendation of the instructor) are testimony to his sustained dedication and engagement to helping students grow throughout their academic career. ECE is proud of Prof. David Orser’s work and achievement. Congratulations on receiving the Penrose teaching award!

Previous winners of the Penrose teaching award have been professors Jarvis Haupt, John Sartori, Doug Ernie, Sarah Swisher, and Soheil Mohajer.

The Russell Penrose award was set up to reward outstanding teaching in ECE at the discretion of the department head. Russ was born in 1927 at Moose Lake and graduated from Carlton High School in 1945. He enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve after finishing high school and trained as an electronics technician. In 1946, he entered the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. The Cold War had just begun in earnest, and the Defense Department needed a vastly expanded, and extremely sophisticated arsenal. California was where much of this was happening and Russ went to work for North American Aviation (later to become Rockwell International) in 1950. During his career he worked on airborne electronic and optical instrumentation for gathering performance data on various avionics weapons systems being developed by Rockwell, such as radars, inertial navigators, flight controls, etc. Russ invented various circuits and devices to solve specific instrumentation problems. In the last two years of his working life, Russ worked with Lear Siegler on the flight director computer of the Stealth fighter. In the course of his career, he has gone from his IT interest of power applications to computer-controlled invisible airplanes.

The College of Science and Engineering is Russ’ top philanthropic priority. His contributions and support include the CSE Honors scholarships (that support three full tuition awards for students with need) among others. More recently he helped start up the Exceed Lab and set up an ECE fund to reward outstanding teaching. At age 93 Russ now lives in the central valley of California where he continues to enjoy his music and his daily exercise.