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The 2011 James G. Woodburn Award
for Excellence in Teaching


Robert J. Witt.

Robert J. Witt
Engineering Physics

Engineers need to understand how to deconstruct a system—to understand their constraints and know what resources are at their disposal in tackling a problem. For Engineering Physics Professor Robert Witt's students, that lesson comes early and often.

In his sections of introductory mechanics courses Statics (EMA 201) and Dynamics (EMA 202), critical concepts challenge students—but more importantly, Witt challenges his students to prepare for—and deal with—ambiguity and incomplete information. “In a sense, a secondary goal of these classes is to help students gain the maturity necessary to succeed in our challenging upper-level courses,” says James Blanchard, professor and chair of the engineering physics department.

Witt lays the groundwork to help his students excel not only as engineers, but as lifelong learners.

Rapid technological advancement over his 25 years in teaching have expanded the limits of the higher education at a breakneck pace, but Witt has worked tirelessly to adapt his teaching style to the 21st-century classroom. He has collaborated with colleagues at UW-Madison, at Penn State and at McGraw-Hill to improve distance learning through effective online homework systems for teaching statics and dynamics. Witt also plans to expand the limits of the classroom format by teaching his statics course in the new, technology-rich WisCEL space in Wendt Commons.

Holistic thinking—seeing all the components of a system and how they interact—is an invaluable skill for engineers. Witt weaves that philosophy into his lectures; for example, when his students learn the ins and outs of using programming within MatLab, they also learn how the abstracted utilities within the programming environment function, so that they better understand the strengths and limits that will affect their programs. For his reactor engineering courses, Witt has developed curriculum for students that takes a tremendous number of details—both in the physics and the structural mechanics of reactor design—and contextualizes them to the realities of designing nuclear facilities, building on lessons from his experience investigating the Three Mile Island reactors. “No one else in the United States provides this level of detail in a comparable undergraduate reactor engineering course,” says Blanchard.