Eric Dufresne


Eric Dufresne brings the abstract into the real world in his engineering classes

Eric Dufresne, this year’s winner of the Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences, knows the value of problem sets in his teaching, but also knows their limits. He helps make scientific and engineering principles come alive for students by assigning creative projects that allow them to apply what they’ve learned in real-world scenarios. The director of the new Center for Engineering, Innovation & Design, Dufresne also takes his students for a short walk at the end of their semester together, ending at a destination where they can talk about a famous scientist who once was — like them — a Yale student learning about the world.

What do you most enjoy about teaching at Yale?

I think there are two things. First, the students, and second, my colleagues. The thing I like about teaching Yale students the most is their diversity, so whether I am teaching a course for undergraduates in “Thermodynamics” or a graduate course in “Biological Physics,” both of those classes manage to attract students with very different interests. In my “Thermodynamics” class, which is primarily designed for mechanical engineers, I very often get biomedical engineers and geologists. I had a religious studies major once, and physics majors. They all bring different perspectives, and it’s really fun to think about how I can relate my subjects to their broader interests and to get those perspectives together.

In terms of my colleagues: In the last few years I think there’s been a greater emphasis on science teaching at Yale. There have been some landmark initiatives across Yale that have inspired me as well as my colleagues. Within engineering, there’s the Center for Engineering, Innovation & Design, which is bringing hands-on teaching across the curriculum in engineering as well as giving opportunities in engineering for students majoring in other disciplines. Broadly based across the sciences, there’s the new Center for Scientific Teaching, led by Jo Handelsman, and I’ve learned so much about good teaching from my colleagues participating in its workshops.

Is there a teacher you’ve had who especially inspired you?

The teacher who had the biggest impact on my life was Professor William Bennett, who was on the faculty here for about 40 years. When I was undergraduate here at Yale, he taught a class called “Applied Physics 207.” This class completely changed the way I looked at the world and thought about science. Bill Bennett taught us how to apply freshman physics principles to the real world, using computers to do calculations. Normally when you do freshman physics you have to consider highly idealized problems that don’t bear an obvious relation to the world you live in, but taking those simple principles with a little bit of computation power, you can apply those simple physics principles to very concrete real-world problems. That really shifted my perspective on how I think about science.

Also, Bill — who passed away a few years ago — was an amazing mentor for me. He was an avid musician and scientist, and loved teaching and language, and we did a project together on the physics of hearing that was really inspirational to me. Not only was it the first time I did a research project with a professor, but Bill made me feel comfortable asking questions that are not quite mainstream. In my own research, I’ve always worked at the periphery of what everyone else does, and I think this has allowed me to be more creative.

If there is one thing you’d like your students to learn, what would that be?

I think it’s important for students in the sciences and engineering to understand the connection between abstract principles and reality, and the importance of critical thinking and creativity in jumping back and forth between those two. That’s basically everything they need to know, but that’s also incredibly abstract. When I’m teaching any class, I try to have elements of abstract principles, hands-on science, student-driven creative projects, and, obviously, lots and lots of problem sets — which equals critical thinking. I’ll give an example: In “Thermodynamics,” which is traditionally a course where you give lectures and assign problem sets and give exams, some of my problem sets involve students doing experiments in the dining hall or in their dorm room so they can discover for themselves how the principles of thermodynamics relate to the world around them.

I also try to have students understand, even in such a theoretical course, the importance of creativity in science and engineering, and one of the ways I do that is by putting a lot of emphasis on the people who were involved in discovering the principles that we are talking about in class. In “Thermodynamics,” that’s really easy and really fun because the person who’s responsible for the most important ideas in thermodynamics was Josiah Willard Gibbs, who was a native of New Haven, a Yale undergraduate, the University’s first engineering Ph.D., and a member of the faculty. Throughout the semester I like to remind the students that this was a real person who lived here in New Haven and was a Yale undergraduate just like them, and I talk about his life and where his ideas came from and how broadly they’re applied. I think it helps students understand science and engineering as a human endeavor that allows them to place themselves in a creative context.

What have your students taught you?

I’ve learned so much from my students. Getting back to diversity: Most of my students have a different background than I do, so many of them think of asking questions that I’ve never asked. In “Thermodynamics,” the application of the principles to the real world is sometimes very subtle and confusing, and it’s absolutely stunning how many different ways they can be applied to many different situations in the world. I’m constantly trying to push the envelope so my students understand how broadly applicable they are, and many times I push the envelope to the point of breaking. My students help me identify times when I’ve stepped too far.

Students also ask amazing questions about how thermodynamics might apply to situations I might never have heard of before. I invite them to write a one-page paper about the topic that was raised in class. That one-page paper is never just a one-way thing: We always have a conversation, and they’re always revising it. At the end of the day, both the students and I learn a lot about some new aspect of thermodynamics that we didn’t appreciate before.

Also, I love to have undergraduates working with me in the laboratory, and teaching a class is so different from an apprenticeship in the lab. I’ve had the most amazing undergraduates work with me, who have not only learned how to work in a laboratory, but who have expanded human knowledge by doing creative, novel, and careful experiments and theoretical analyses. I’m so grateful to those students who have participated. I’ve enjoyed my time with them, and they’ve also contributed substantively to my career and my research portfolio. I’ve learned from my students, and the field of science has also learned much from my students, who have done great things in my laboratory and have gone on to do great things afterwards.

Is there a memorable classroom experience you’d like to share?

Every year, at the end of the last class for “Thermodynamics,” we make a pilgrimage to the Grove Street Cemetery, where we go visit the tomb of Josiah Willard Gibbs. It’s sort of a cheesy, hokey thing in this modern world to take a step back and go visit a gravesite, especially in the context of a “hard” science class. But I’ve always thought it was just a funny thing to do on the last day of class, and it’s amazing how much the students enjoy it. Across the semester I often talk about Gibbs and how he was a real person, but spending the whole hour walking to the cemetery and talking about his life as a whole, I think, really has a big impact on them. And it’s always really fun.

View video clip from Eric Dufresne’s interview.