Crafting Courses Where Students Emerge Saying ‘I Can Do This!’

4/25/23 Pratt School of Engineering

The winner of this year's Pratt Teaching Performance Award in Duke BME is Ann Saterbak

Crafting Courses Where Students Emerge Saying ‘I Can Do This!’

You might call it “grit.” Or “stick-to-it-iveness.” Teaching-focused professors at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering speak of building each student’s sense of “self-efficacy.”  

Experience and research indicate that characteristic, which you might even call the “I can do it” spirit, is key to thriving over the years of rigorous training it takes to become an engineer. 

“Working in teams on open-ended problems, a student begins to believe more in themselves,” said Ann Saterbak, professor of the practice of biomedical engineering. “This builds the sense of self-efficacy.” 

Ann Saterbak of Duke UniversitySaterbak is the recipient of this academic year’s Pratt School of Engineering Faculty Performance Award in Duke BME.  

These new awards were created to recognize, encourage and reward exceptional distinction, innovation, and productivity in teaching. Four are awarded each year. The recipients receive a $15,000 salary bonus. 

Saterbak has received recognition for her development of Duke Engineering’s First-Year Design Program. Every new Duke Engineering student takes the EGR 101 course. They work in teams and with an expert faculty mentor to design solutions to a challenge posed by real-world clients. Some teams have sought development grants to continue refining their projects, and others have sought patent protection for their design. Many don’t find a perfectly workable solution. But all learn keystone skills in written and oral communication, and each has had a chance—at the very start of their college career—to try on the identity of an engineer. 

Since coming to Duke, she has crafted additional courses, including one in which students can continue to work on a promising first-year design project, and another, BME 260, in which student teams build computer models of cellular systems and a selected disease. 

The love of teaching and her desire to focus on it came to her in the mid-1990s, during her third year of graduate school. 

“I realized that I’d rather teach than do research,” she said. “I loved working with the students.” 

Few academic job listings matched that aspiration, and Saterbak worked in the corporate world. She credits good luck, and the help of colleagues got her to Rice University in 1999, where innovations in engineering education were brewing. She built a first-year design program there and worked with leadership and faculty on a new model of faculty work with a teaching focus.  

In 2017, she came to Duke Engineering, where she was made a professor of the practice. 

Professors of the practice are vital contributors to the best-in-class student experience at the Pratt School of Engineering. They’re faculty members, often with recent relevant experience in industry, who teach courses typically focused on fundamental concepts and skills – such as design and professional methods. 

“It’s nice that Duke has the professor of the practice, a model for teaching-focused faculty,” Saterbak said. “That makes a difference.” 

Outside of classrooms, labs and office hours, Saterbak advocates for teaching innovation. She’s conducted workshops on best practices in teaching in East Africa. She’s received the Robert G. Quinn Award from the American Society for Engineering Education, recognizing outstanding contributions to promoting excellence in experimentation and laboratory instruction. 

“A growing part of what I do is mentoring other faculty members interested in teaching,” she said.