Hat-trick for Prof Tania Hanekom

Posted on November 30, 2015

Prof Tania Hanekom, from the Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, has received a hat-trick of awards: the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) award, the University of Pretoria award and the National award for Teaching and Learning.

She won these awards predominantly for her work in undergraduate teaching that focusses on training students in the basic skills required to succeed in the embedded design industry. Since the explosion in the digital device market over the past few decades, it has become essential to equip engineering graduates with embedded design skills. Her teaching aims to address this need while simultaneously empowering students to excel in the embedded design industry.

Prof Hanekom believes that there is no reason engineering education in South Africa should not be equivalent to or better than that provided by the top engineering universities in the world. While some of the challenges universities face are global, South African institutions have to deal with a number of unique challenges. Top international engineering universities skim off the cream from the global student population, while local universities must adopt a more inclusive approach that caters to a diverse student population, which is vitally important to address the recognised shortage of engineers in South Africa.

Prof Hanekom’s main teaching philosophy is that challenging students is an effective strategy to develop excellence, especially in engineering students who cannot resist a contest that requires expression of their technical ingenuity with the added prospect of achievement. A second foundational philosophy is that excellence fosters excellence: if one wants to nurture excellence in students, one must offer excellence in the teaching and learning strategy – one needs to set an example that students cannot resist following.

Several interventions intended to uphold the teaching philosophy are employed in the teaching and learning strategy used at EBIT. The first is to tailor the module to evolve along with the fast-moving embedded design industry. Since embedded design is a major career destination for electrical, electronic and computer engineering graduates, it is important that the scope of the module is structured to develop a comprehensive, contemporary skill-set. The second intervention is to provide the necessary infrastructure and develop a teaching and assessment strategy that supports a hands-on approach for large classes. Infrastructure was developed at two levels. At a foundational level, the laboratory capacity was increased to accommodate a large number of students at individual workstations. This was accomplished by integrating a number of smaller laboratories into a super-laboratory. At a more complex level, a computerised approach to grading students' firmware code was developed and subsequently expanded into a computerised tutoring system to nurture firmware development skills. Finally, the practical component of the module was designed to provide the ultimate challenge: students are divided into teams, each of which must develop an autonomous line-following robot that competes in a race at the professionally organised end-of-semester Race Day event (http://www.ee.up.ac.za/main/emk310/index).

Race Day provides an opportunity to undertake and complete a comprehensive engineering project from first principles, to experience the joy of achievement and to involve the industry that graduates will eventually sustain.

Call-out quote: ‘Challenges in teaching are not to be approached as obstacles, but rather as opportunities to stimulate innovation. Innovation, in turn, encourages excellence because innovation without excellence will yield an inferior, frustrating outcome. Providing a challenge is thus an effective tactic to develop excellence: students will invariably answer a challenge with excellence because they are enthused by the prospect of achievement. This is also true for lecturers, who need to find innovative solutions to a wide variety of teaching challenges in manners that are effective and sustainable. Challenge is thus the fertile soil in which new ideas and tactics can sprout and grow.’


- Author Denise Smit

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