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Gavin Awarded for Undergraduate Teaching

By Richard Merritt

Humor is often one of the telling characteristics of an effective and respected teacher, and from all accounts, Henri Gavin, associate professor of civil engineering, can be a pretty funny guy.

“He always tries to crack jokes about things, especially when it seems the class isn’t paying attention well enough,” said Ian Cassidy, who took two Gavin classes and graduated this spring with a degree in civil engineering. “I remember in one class, most of us may not have been too awake since it was first thing in the morning. He came in with his two sons, who were about five and seven, and started off by asking a tough question. Before anyone could answer, his youngest son did. That cracked us up.”

Students even created a Facebook page entitled “Dr. Gavin Makes Me Laugh” to document and share his attempts – successful or not – at humor.

Henri GavinHowever, there is much more to Gavin’s rapport with his students than creating a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. This year, Duke University undergraduates voted Gavin the winner of the 2007-2008 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. The honor, started in 1970 by the Duke Alumni Association, is intended to recognize outstanding undergraduate teaching.

Gavin, who joined the faculty of the Pratt School of Engineering in 1995, finds that the quality of undergraduates each year gives him the flexibility to not only teach fundamental principles of civil engineering, but to challenge his students to think beyond the traditional precepts of the science.

He likes to point out to his students that most engineering problems may not always have neat and tidy answers, and for engineers to be successful in the real world, they must be able to grapple with the forces of uncertainty.

“As we talk about the basic concepts of engineering, I try to introduce statistics and the concepts of risk and ambiguity,” Gavin said. “For example, in the process of engineering a design to creating a new product, there will always be uncertainty. A precise answer to a problem will likely have no more meaning than a rough answer, or a range of answers. Our students should be able to appreciate that uncertainty.”

The unique nature of Pratt and the teamwork amongst it faculty plays an important role in being a successful teacher, Gavin said. He said regardless of how a particular faculty member is aligned within their particular discipline, all members feel free to explore theoretical or novel ideas.

One of the prime areas of his research is the suppression of potentially damaging vibrations, such as designing buildings able to withstand the effects of an earthquake. Cassidy worked with Gavin as a Pratt Fellow in the same area, researching methods for offsetting the possibly harmful effects on computer servers within a building that is itself experiencing vibrations. Cassidy said that those three semesters of working together gave him a greater appreciation of Gavin’s teaching and mentoring abilities.

“The undergraduates who come here are so bright,” Gavin said. “Because of that, I can bring my passion for engineering to the classroom, I can challenge myself to find ways to get them to see the bigger picture or to consider more advanced perspectives. I enjoy being able to push them, and myself, into more advanced topics. The trick, however, is not to go too far.”

It appears, based on the comments of students, that he rarely crossed that line.

“To watch him in the classroom is to watch a genius at work,” remarked a student in the nomination document. “He is by far the most intelligent professor I have ever had, but also one of the most talented at explaining difficult material to any student. He approaches any concept or problem by dividing it up into its elements and systematically explaining anything you fail to grasp, whether it takes one or one hundred diagrams and five minutes in or an hour outside of class (regardless of when his official office hours are).”

Gavin has also been recognized nationally for his classroom talents. The American Society of Engineering Educators recently bestowed upon him the 2008 Outstanding Mid-Career Teaching Award.

The Duke teaching award carries a $5,000 personal stipend and a gift of $1,000 to the Duke library of Gavin’s choice. He will officially be honored Sept. 27 during the Founders’ Convocation in the Duke Chapel.