A Love for Teaching and That Moment When It All Clicks

4/25/23 Pratt School of Engineering

The winner of this year's Pratt Teaching Performance Award in Duke CEE is Joe Nadeau

Joe Nadeau of Duke University, center
A Love for Teaching and That Moment When It All Clicks

The pedagogical challenge to provide great teaching at an engineering school is itself a lot like an engineering challenge.

“I am always trying to figure out where my students are in terms of the knowledge that they come in with at the start of a course, and where I want them to be when we are at the end,” said Joe Nadeau, professor of the practice in Duke Civil & Environmental Engineering. “The challenge, which I love, is trying to figure out the most effective ways to get to that end state.”

Joseph C. Nadeau of Duke UniversityBuilding courses that deeply engage students presents a serious challenge. And one way to address that challenge is to look at it as an engineering problem — identify needs and goals, examine approaches, and then design a solution, Nadeau said.

“And the last step, which never ends, if looking back after the end of the semester, see how I’m doing and then look to how I can do it better next semester,” he said.

In recognition of his exceptional teaching, Nadeau is the recipient of this academic year’s Pratt School of Engineering Faculty Performance Award in Duke CEE.

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.

Nadeau’s favorite teaching effort at Duke has been the active-learning simulation for seniors that he and fellow professor of the practice David Schaad developed. As employees of the imaginary engineering firm “Overture Engineering,” student teams create authentic work documents for the architectural, structural and environmental design of a structure to be built on campus.

In recent semesters, Nadeau has taught such fundamental courses as CEE 422L: Concrete and Composite Structures, CEE 423L: Metallic Structures, CEE 429: Integrated Structural Design, EGR 201L: Mechanics of Solids.

Early in his faculty career, Nadeau started out in a research and tenure track, but made a big change.

“I found I really enjoyed teaching. I sensed a need for faculty focused on teaching,” he said. “I moved to 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. While all faculty members, including those with a focus on high-impact research efforts, teach students throughout Duke Engineering’s undergraduate and graduate programs, professors of the practice uniquely focus on high-performance teaching.

Teaching for Nadeau is both a professional practice and a passion.

“I really love to see that mental lightbulb go on for a student when everything clicks,” Nadeau said. “You can tell when that happens, and it is amazing.”

The settings for those moments, he said, are more often during conversations during office hours or other chats outside of classroom time. The one-on-one opportunity provides a space to both find out where a student is stuck and then to find another way to construct a new or different explanation of a concept. The moment when the student can express that they understand it, that is very rewarding and motivating, he said.