Story by Wayne Gillam | UW ECE News
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is one of the largest and most respected professional associations for electrical and electronic engineering in the world, with more than 423,000 members in over 160 countries. Recently, IEEE Region 6, which represents the western half of the United States, named professor Denise Wilson as recipient of their 2020 Outstanding Engineering Educator Award. The award recognizes Wilson as an outstanding educator, facilitator and mentor, and it notes her excellence in adaptation and resilience to a broad range of learning environments, including remote learning. Wilson has taught in the University of Washington Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering for over 20 years. She is a respected researcher and educator, an influential faculty mentor, and one of only a handful of individuals at the University who has investigated improving the process of engineering education itself through rigorous study and research.
“I’m really grateful for this award because it gives me extra energy to pour back into my students,” Wilson said. “It allows me to go back into teaching with greater enthusiasm and affirms my interest in understanding how students learn and how to best support them.”
A respected researcher and educator
Wilson’s research interests extend from engineering education to studying women in the engineering workplace, to her technical research in sensors and photovoltaic systems. She is the author of two books and numerous publications. She is also managing director of Coming Alongside, an environmental services non-profit invested in translating current science into understandable and actionable language for all people. The organization seeks to minimize negative impacts of human activity on the environment and public health.
“Denise’s passion for teaching and mentoring extends well beyond the traditional classroom to study-abroad, K–12, her local community and almost every area of her life. She knows how to bring the best out of her students and colleagues, and for that alone, her impact will be everlasting.” — UW ECE assistant teaching professor Rania Hussein
Some of her notable work in engineering education includes “Mapping the Roads to Greater Engagement,” a study she led in 2015–2019, which was funded by the National Science Foundation. The project examined various factors that support and influence the ability of students to engage in classroom learning, including the roles of faculty, teaching assistants and peers in creating a supportive environment.
“When you do research on a regular basis, you see teaching in a different way,” Wilson said. “The very set of skills that we use in the process of doing research — formulating problems, hypotheses and questions — provides us with a unique opportunity to use that practice in the classroom in a manner that doesn’t have everyone teaching the same way, but produces teachers in the classroom that work with and maximize the strengths they bring to the table.”
An outstanding faculty mentor
Wilson is passionately dedicated to providing engineering faculty, both through formal peer teaching review and through more informal mentoring, a pathway by which they can become the best and most unique teacher that their personal style and philosophy enables. Among her colleagues at the UW, educators at conferences she attends, and across her professional network, she seeks to support faculty, understand how individuals are strong, and help them set achievable, realistic goals with those strengths in mind.
“When Denise speaks about engineering education research, I take notes,” said UW ECE assistant teaching professor Rania Hussein, who nominated Wilson for the award. “She has been coaching me to complement my years of teaching experience with scholarship to take my career to a new level.”
Supporting students through COVID-19 and beyond
Finding new and better ways to support students and improve the quality of their educational experience is a top priority for Wilson. She has been leading efforts at UW ECE to improve engineering education and remote learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the COVID-19 crisis, Denise went above and beyond the call of duty to support her students and me personally in different ways,” Hussein said. “This prompted the award nomination, among many other reasons.”
Last spring, Wilson led an initiative in the College of Engineering to research how COVID-19 was impacting engineering students at the UW and what types of support they most needed heading into the fall. Based on what she learned from the study and her own teaching experience, she held a workshop for UW ECE faculty and staff to help guide their approach to remote learning. Going forward, she will offer an expanded session on this topic at the American Society for Engineering Education conference in July 2021. She is also in the process of more broadly distributing best practices from her spring quarter research to engineering programs across the country.
“Denise’s passion for teaching and mentoring extends well beyond the traditional classroom to study-abroad, K–12, her local community and almost every area of her life,” Hussein wrote in Wilson’s award nomination. “She knows how to bring the best out of her students and colleagues, and for that alone, her impact will be everlasting.”