Commitment to undergrad experience earns Irena Knezevic a Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award

// Electrical & Computer Engineering

By the end of each semester, Patricia and Michael Splinter Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Irena Knezevic knows the name of every student in ECE 235, Introduction to Solid State Electronics. That’s no small feat, considering the course typically enrolls 80 to 100 students. But that’s just part of the highly engaged teaching style that recently earned Knezevic one of just five Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Awards at UW-Madison in 2020.

Photo of Irena Knezevic
Irena Knezevic

Knezevic refers to her teaching method as an updated lecture format. She prefers a classroom with lots of whiteboards where she can talk, write and draw (she’s known for her doodles of famous scientists) at a pace that allows students to take notes.

The format also allows her to adjust her class on the fly depending on its composition. “You wouldn’t believe how different classes are from semester to semester,” she says. “Sometimes you have a really strong class that can take on a lot. Sometimes the class might be challenging.”

Knezevic tailors each semester to her students, setting a pace and tone that keeps them engaged, and most importantly, fills the seats. Even though the topics she teaches can be difficult, she says keeping things funny, focused and organized and at a pace where students feel they can keep up goes a long way toward preventing them from zoning out. “There’s always fun stuff to cover,” she says. “If they attend lectures, that’s half the battle.”

In an undergraduate class like ECE 235, however, the lecture is just one component. Knezevic says she assigns more homework than most instructors, provides abundant office hours, and offers detailed discussion sections. “This enables students to come talk to someone about how to think about these problems and set them up,” she says.

The goal is to make sure students truly understand the concepts she’s teaching and can apply them to new problems.

Knezevic says her teaching philosophy developed from her own time as a student, from reading studies on education, and from her experiences teaching. After college, she taught physics for a while at a high school for gifted students. While earning her PhD, she says, she often substituted for her adviser who traveled extensively. When she came to UW-Madison, she says that, like a lot of junior faculty, she was more focused on mentoring graduate students and pursuing her own research than on teaching undergraduates.

But that changed. “When I started teaching undergrads, I didn’t think I’d like it as much as I did,” she says. “It’s a challenge, but one I enjoy. I like to show students who don’t come with much interest in the material how cool it is. I see student evaluations saying things like, ‘I didn’t think I’d like this, but I loved it.’”

Knezevic’s secret sauce may be the fact that she truly loves the material she covers, and it shows. “You can’t really replace the actual enthusiasm for the material with anything else,” she says. “I love this: the work that I do, and the courses that I teach. I love teaching undergrads; they really energize me, and I guess they respond to that.”

Research interests

Knezevic’s research is as equally impressive as her teaching. Currently, she and her students develop sophisticated mathematical models of nanoscale systems determining how charge, light and heat play off one another and affect modern electronics. “These models are rooted in quantum mechanics and the physics of the solid state,” she says. “This type of work actually has repercussions for essentially all of modern hardware, including things like transistors in consumer electronics or lasers used in sensing and communication.”

Currently, she and her students are working on projects that include an investigation of how moving charges interact with electromagnetic fields, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Her group is also studying high-powered mid-infrared lasers for the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and nanoscale thermal transport for the National Science Foundation, investigating heat flow in extremely small objects, which obeys different laws than heat in larger objects.

Author: Jason Daley