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University of Wisconsin - Madison College of Engineering
Photo of Michael J. Smith.

Michael J. Smith
Robert Ratner Professor of Industrial Engineering

"Best professor I have ever had." "I enjoyed going to class." "Thought-provoking." "Real-life examples were valuable." Comments such as these regularly appear in student evaluations of Professor Michael J. Smith.

To engage students with human-factors, organizational management, ergonomics, and other issues, he presents a melange of videotapes, websites, slides, overheads and personal anecdotes. And though his courses often draw as many as 100 students, Smith wanders into the aisles to talk with them about the ideas they're learning. "We discuss, argue, comment, agree, disagree, complain and laugh," he says.

This hands-on, student-centered, "active-learning" approach is so successful that many of Smith's colleagues regard him as a mentor and seek to emulate his style. "Watching him teach, you see how he is able to be interactive with a class of 70-plus students and how the students try to participate as much as possible," says one faculty member. "He continuously challenges the students while making the learning experience pleasant and interesting," says another.

During his 18 years in the college, Smith has advised 80 master's and PhD students. Recently, a group of those students honored him with a surprise party and an award for excellence in holistic education. "He respects you as an equal and gives you the freedom to explore your interests, challenge his ideas and talk to other professors. His door is always open," says a former PhD student.

In Smith's view, that open-door policy is crucial to students' out-of-classroom experiences with faculty. During the past 15 years, he has spent about 15 hours a week meeting with undergraduate and graduate students about assignments, theses, career counseling and more.

Smith, who earned his PhD in industrial psychology from UW-Madison and worked 13 years in industry before joining the industrial engineering faculty, also regularly volunteers to teach additional classes to ensure coverage of critical courses.

He has received Polygon Engineering Council Outstanding Teaching Awards in 14 of the last 18 years. The industrial engineering undergraduate honor society, Alpha Pi Mu, named him 2002 instructor of the year and in 1991, the Wisconsin Student Association chose Smith as one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's top-100 teachers.