Friday Profile: Thurnau Professor Steve Skerlos

Steve Skerlos, Thurnau Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has become so well known among his colleagues as a deeply engaged and innovative teacher that his name has become for many of them a synonym for pedagogical success. His department has developed their own playful terminology: a “Skerlosian Effort” indicates a high score on the “Skerlosian Scale” of teaching effectiveness.

Thurnau professor Steve SkerlosProfessor Skerlos’s own Skerlosian Efforts are many and lasting; students past and present enthusiastically describe the long-term impact he has had on their academic and professional lives. In describing his teaching, they regularly mention his passion, his ability to teach to a range of learning styles, and his sensitive mentoring. Students and colleagues alike praise Skerlos’s model of “learning through doing”—his drive to enable students to become engineers by working as engineers, side-by-side with their professor.
 
Professor Skerlos sparks and fosters student passion partly by emphasizing the potential of good engineering to do good in the world.  He has put sustainability at the center of undergraduate education in engineering, co-creating key programs and specializations in Sustainable Engineering, Global Health Design, and Sustainable Water and Energy. The Program in Sustainable Engineering, where Skerlos is now Director, has a 9-credit specialized study in sustainable engineering. The program is working towards educating all undergraduate engineers in sustainability awareness and how they can act positively in the field through design. Through the work of BLUElab, a student-run program he co-founded, Skerlos has cultivated student interest in sustainability by mentoring and collaborating with student teams on projects that seek to, for instance, recover heat from residential shower water and convert farm waste to bioenergy.
 
A natural extension of Professor Skerlos’s devotion to mentoring through collaboration and fostering student passion for addressing real-world problems is his commitment to supporting students from groups historically underrepresented in engineering.  Having actively worked to build support networks for such students, Skerlos has contributed to an increase in the numbers of young women taking the lead as student-engineers at U-M.  BLUElab’s undergraduate membership is now about 40% female, and three of four major BLUElab projects in 2011 were led by female students.  
 
For Skerlos’s students, the most powerful learning experience of their U-M career is often their collaborative work with him: an engineer who has invited them to do what he does, to love what he loves, and to see how doing it well leads beyond mere technical success to broader and deeper kinds of accomplishment. It is not only his passion for innovative design and sustainability solutions, but his deep respect for his student-engineers that many describe as the key factor in their choice to remain committed to engineering as a major and a profession.
 
To learn more about the Thurnau Professorships, click here. To read about other remarkable U-M teachers, click on the "Friday Profile" tag below.
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