Faculty Spotlight with ShiNung Ching, Associate Professor of Electrical & Systems Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis

“I want our students to think about engineering as a lens through which they can view and engage with an almost unlimited range of issues and, most importantly, to define and create entire new problems that we have yet to imagine,” said ShiNung Ching, Associate Professor of Electrical & Systems Engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Ching has taught courses including ESE 105: Introduction to Electrical and Systems Engineering.

Professor Ching joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis in May 2013. Prior to his current role, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Professor Ching is the recipient of several awards. In 2012, he was awarded a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface. The award is granted to early career researchers with backgrounds in engineering and the applied sciences who are using methodologies from these fields to pursue research questions of biological and medical relevance.

In 2020, Professor Ching was an honoree of the Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award, which recognizes educators for their leadership in and passion for teaching, their contributions to student learning, and their knowledge and creativity.

In an interview with The Center for Teaching and Learning, Professor Ching discussed the challenges of teaching engineering and how he addresses them. He also discussed how he has adapted his teaching during the pandemic.

What was your path toward becoming an engineering professor?

As part of my undergraduate degree I had a chance to work on a project alongside doctoral students and other senior researchers, which motivated me to apply to graduate school. There, the research and academic environment resonated with me, especially being able to shape questions and exchange ideas with my fellow students and eventual colleagues, as well as help teach and mentor students junior to me. A few years into my Ph.D. it was clear to me that I wanted to remain in academia long term and eventually become a professor.

Tell me more about your research at WashU. What projects are you working on, and how do you guide students in this research?

In my lab we develop mathematical and computational models to help us understand how the brain works and how we might eventually interact with the brain in more systematic ways. The latter outcomes can lead to new ways of diagnosing and helping patients, for example those with certain brain injuries. In the former, we are developing new modeling and analysis methods to help reveal how the immense complexity within the brain allows for incredible feats of information processing, which in turn can allow us to enact this capability in engineered systems.  Students in my lab have backgrounds in engineering, math, physics and brain science and many have not previously worked in interdisciplinary research.  Thus, a big part of how I guide these students involves helping them to engage with new engineering and scientific areas, which can include taking courses or other workshops. Mostly, I encourage them to read as much as they can to understand how other researchers have thought about related problems in the past.  From there, I encourage my students to construct their own questions, ideally borne from their own curiosity, and take the leading role in the creation of their dissertation research.

What are some of the challenges of teaching engineering, and how do you address them?

A key challenge I have encountered is managing a wide range of learning styles of preferences in the classroom. In our engineering classes, many students value a high degree of structure in lectures and assessments, while others favor a more free-flowing style. Another challenge is balancing breadth versus depth of coverage. These are certainly not easy issues to contend with and what I mostly do is try and adjust semester to semester based on the needs and interests of my students. Getting regular feedback from them is a part of this, and one of the things I do in many of my classes is ask students in the first week of class to suggest one or two specific things they would like to know more about by the end of the semester.

What is your favorite part (or parts) of teaching engineering?

I most enjoy the day-to-day interactions with students, talking with them and getting to understand what motivates them and what they hope to one day pursue using their degrees. Seeing the culmination of their degrees, in the form of research and capstone projects, is also a fun and rewarding part of the experience.

How have you adapted your teaching during the pandemic? What advice do you have for other instructors teaching during this challenging time?

During the pandemic, I worked together with my colleague Professor Matthew Lew, to develop some new approaches in our class, ESE 105: Introduction to Electrical and Systems Engineering. A big part of our class involves collaboration between students, so to do this in the hybrid teaching model of the Fall semester, we placed students into ‘pods’ of approximately six to eight students each. Every week, each pod was responsible for working through an exercise that covered certain mathematical and computational concepts, then deployed them in engineering analysis and design contexts. The pod then created a short video that would explain their approach and results. These videos were peer reviewed by other pods, allowing students to reinforce concepts by seeing alternative perspectives and approaches to their own.  The students adapted well to this new format and we were overall pleased with the growth trajectory that they demonstrated. We now plan to retain parts of this model in the future, even when we hopefully move beyond the pandemic.

What do you hope students take away from your classes or lab?

From a practical perspective, I hope that students come away learning and retaining concepts and skills that they can use to pursue careers that excite them after they graduate. More generally, I want our students to think about engineering as a lens through which they can view and engage with an almost unlimited range of issues and, most importantly, to define and create entire new problems that we have yet to imagine.

What advice do you have for aspiring instructors?

Bring your own interests, experiences and questions that motivate you into the classroom. Some of my most favorite classroom experiences, and the ones students most comment on, involve impromptu discussions spurred on by research findings in the press, or from my lab. These types of discussions help build rapport, cultivate interest and push students to think about their own goals and connection with the material being taught.