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Bravman: Promoting hands-on learning

STANFORD -- When he began teaching, John Bravman once made the mistake of judging his success by the expressions on students' faces. One student in his engineering fundamentals class "looked so bored all the time that I almost dreaded going to class," said the associate professor of materials science engineering.

Bravman walked into his office one day the following September and found the dreaded student waiting for him.

"She said she liked the class so much that she had decided to major in materials science, and she asked me to be her advisor," he said. "She turned out to be a great student. She now works at Lockheed and is a friend."

Bravman, one of five faculty selected as a Bing Fellow in the first year of the awards to recognize excellence in teaching, believes there are many ways to teach effectively. The teachers he admired most when he was a Stanford student - William Nix, now his department chairman, and James Plummer, the John M. Fluke Professor of Electrical Engineering - were what he calls "nearly flawless lecturers."

"The clarity of their lectures was at such high levels," Bravman said. "I always thought they were so well thought out that it flowed, and I took lots of notes."

Bravman describes himself as an "explainer," a style he picked up from his late father, an accountant, whose only formal instructing experience was teaching radio electronics to soldiers in World War II.

"I can remember him sitting me down and explaining many things," Bravman said. "He had this natural interest in science and he was a natural explainer. That's my style, too."

"The common thread" in good teaching may be a commitment to students, Bravman says, "which can be difficult at those times when it doesn't appear the students themselves have much commitment to their education. If in each class there's a small group of excited students, that's my reward."

It's likely that more than a few students enjoy Bravman's introductory course in materials science, for its enrollment has grown from about 30 students when he began teaching it to about 100 last quarter. He gets an "exceptional" rating frequently in the quarterly engineering course guide prepared by students in Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, and based on formal student evaluations of Engineering School courses.

Materials science is primarily a graduate-level department at Stanford, and little of Bravman's work year is spent directly with undergraduates. The undergraduates he teaches are taking his class as part of a mandated sequence of "fundamentals," he said, a fact that strongly influences him to teach concepts in ways they are most likely to be remembered.

"I try to do something other than straight lecturing in every class session," he said. "I have students do a lot of demonstrations, and I've come up with a couple where all 100 can participate."

He demonstrates strain hardening - the property of many metals to be strengthened through deformation - by giving each student a six-inch-long piece of copper tubing that has been annealed in a furnace to make it relatively soft.

"I tell them to bend it back and forth, and they very quickly realize it's getting harder where they are bending it," he said. "They can sense it immediately. It always gets oohs and ahs."

Bravman hopes to expand his repertoire of demonstrations and that of other introductory materials science professors nationally by using a portion of his Bing fellowship grant to write and publish a demonstrations manual. The fellowships provide $10,000 annually to the winners for three years, two-thirds of which is reserved for teaching or curriculum improvement projects.

"I've found it takes a lot of time to come up with good demonstrations, so I'm offering to give my colleagues a manual if they'll sketch out their demonstrations for me," he said. "There's a very successful set of demonstration manuals in chemistry, but nothing like this in materials science."



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