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Masters: Putting familiar phenomena into new contexts

STANFORD - Civil engineer Gil Masters is among the 1 percent of Stanford professors with "teaching" specified in their titles.

"I'm grateful for the mandate to focus on teaching," said Masters. "A working knowledge of energy and the environment is becoming increasingly important to people in all walks of life."

Good teaching is built on one-to-one relationships - getting to know people well enough to see how to help them follow their own lines of inquiry, he said.

Masters views himself as a synthesizer.

"I love to pull together bits from journals, conferences, research seminars, discussions with colleagues, reports in the popular press, conversations with students, interactions with my own family, to shape a picture that will entice students to question and reflect," he said.

He also thinks of teaching as "translation."

"Many times each day, students encounter the phenomena I teach about," Masters said. "I aim to get them to see how to describe familiar things in a different way - one that expands their understanding.

"I especially enjoy teaching introductory courses. If students can get a taste of a field and like it, they'll be motivated to keep learning, in and out of the classroom."

Masters emphasizes the practical.

"I aim to improve students' understanding of how we affect the world. . . . Before putting material into a course I ask: 'How can we use this information to better the human condition?' " he said.

He encourages those who seek his counsel to be better than average - to use less water and electricity, to drive fewer miles, to generate less garbage, to have fewer children. . . . In this way, he said, "we'll steadily raise the average, and make a better world."

"I feel enormous satisfaction when students whom I had a hand in teaching go out and contribute to the common good," Masters said.

Masters is quite blunt about the importance of teaching by example.

"We teach what we are," he says.

Pointing to the fluorescent light fixtures in his office that he recently modified to reduce energy use by two-thirds, he spoke of collaborating with Stanford utilities manager Mike McKnight and a number of students to implement energy-saving techniques on campus. Several years ago, he remodeled his home, doubling its floor size but cutting the energy demand in half..

Masters is still pondering how to spend the $10,000-a- year Bing fellowship money.

"I've been asking my students what they want me to do," he said.

One idea he is considering is to devise a plan for a cohesive, interdisciplinary core of classes about energy for an undergraduate degree program at Stanford. This would include modifying existing courses about energy, as well as developing new ones.

Another possibility is writing new curriculum materials that join natural and social science perspectives on energy.

"However I spend it," he said, "I'll be aiming to afford students a solid foundation for creating a more sustainable society."



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