Professor David Orser receives Horace T. Morse Alumni Award for undergraduate education

Teaching professor David J. Orser is a recipient of the 2021-2022 Horace T. Morse - University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education. The award recognizes Orser’s commitment to undergraduate education, and his innovative contributions to the curriculum as well as outreach activities. 

Contributions to ECE curriculum

Orser has spearheaded the modernization of core courses taught to students pursuing the electrical engineering and computer engineering majors in ECE. These courses range from those taught at the freshmen level all the way to the senior design course (EE 4951W). The updates have taken place within the curriculum and beyond. In fact, Orser’s success lies in how he draws in all parties engaged in the courses, faculty, teaching assistants (TAs), and students, soliciting and giving feedback, judiciously applying technology where necessary, and testing and deploying suggestions and improvements flawlessly. 

Orser views improvements to laboratories and lectures as a constantly evolving process. This perspective makes for nimble teaching practices that can quickly pivot to meet the needs of students and the changing teaching contexts. To that end, resources such as “Living Labs,” “TA Archives,” (both developed by Orser), course materials such as laboratory manuals, TA checklists, lecture notes, quizzes, and videos are shared, and continually improved through feedback and discussions with faculty, TAs, and students. The course “Teaching Instruction Seminar” (EE 5980) designed by Orser, and required to be completed by all TAs is yet another key component of the teaching toolkit. It prepares TAs for their role in the classroom while giving them the opportunity to provide feedback and directly engage in finding solutions to problems that hinder the successful delivery of key concepts. 

The bedrock of preparing our TAs for the classroom is the department’s TA training program.  Developed by Orser in close collaboration with the University’s Center for Education Innovation, it starts each semester with an orientation, then moves into biweekly meetings, and wraps up with a “Lessons Learned” meeting at the end of the semester. TAs are brought together not only to learn from Orser and other faculty, but also from each other. Experienced TAs contribute their knowledge, and support those who are new to the role. The wrap up meeting is critical to the identification of issues in the curriculum, and ways to address them. 

Continual assessment of all teaching materials and resources is a signature of Orser’s work. He undertakes these at all levels, through student evaluations of laboratories, faculty surveys about TAs, and the “Lessons Learned” meeting at the semester’s end. Students, faculty, and staff have come to lean on Orser as someone who will actively listen to and incorporate suggestions where appropriate, and implement these changes skillfully. 

In the classroom

Besides planning, updating, and incorporating improvements within the ECE undergraduate curriculum, Orser is active in the classroom as a teacher himself. This has allowed him to gain firsthand knowledge of problems that instructors and students might face as the semester progresses, and develop suitable solutions. 

“Quick Lessons” is a notable example. Orser developed the tutorial series while collaborating with faculty on updates to the EE 1301 course. Recognizing that many of our students who transfer into the program from other institutions miss critical concepts and relevant training (unlike students who have been at the University as freshmen), he put together the series to give such students an understanding of the concepts they are struggling with, in a fast and easy to understand manner. The lessons are introduced and used only when necessary; when Orser notices a student struggling with a concept, he points them to the relevant “Quick Lesson.” Typically students spend 15 to 30 minutes on the lesson and are soon on track with the course material. The tutorials have been particularly helpful to students who are coming to our program from disadvantaged backgrounds, supporting them where needed while not slowing down their progress through the curriculum. Orser’s own experience working in the classroom has contributed significantly to the development of these tutorials, and they are enhanced by the observations of faculty and TAs (which again points to his successful collaborative approach to updates and improvements). 

Orser’s focus is on undergraduate courses that are taken by students early in their academic journey: freshmen level courses taken by non-major and undecided students (for e.g., EE 1301 Introduction to Programming, EE 2015 Introduction to Circuits, CSE 1012 3D Printing, EE 2361 Microcontrollers, and EE 3005 Circuits for non-Majors). As his teaching evaluations bear out, he is an effective teacher dedicated to ensuring that students have a strong grasp of the course material. Students provide glowing reviews of his teaching methods and have shared that they would recommend his course to their classmates and other students. 

Orser is also active in other areas of teaching. He is a strong advocate for low-cost online textbooks, take-home electronic kits, instant-feedback online homework, peer assistant programs, and other opportunities and resources that can better support our students. Considering his skills and dedication, it is only fitting that he is the ECE Writing Enriched Curriculum (WEC) liaison, and the College in the Schools program faculty coordinator for the EE 1301 course. 

Outside the classroom

In addition to his contributions that are directly related to teaching, Orser is engaged in supporting students in their extra curricular activities. For six years, he has been faculty advisor to the University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project (UMNSVP), an undergraduate student group that designs, and builds solar cars that are raced against other teams across the United States and abroad. (UMNSVP is one of the nation’s most decorated solar vehicle teams.) In his role as faculty advisor, Orser holds regular meetings with the team, guiding them through conflicts, member transitions, ensuring continuity and institutional memory, and coaching group members on the technical and non-technical aspects of running complex operations. That Orser was awarded the 2019 College of Science and Engineering Tinman Award for Faculty Advisor of the Year is a testament to his dedication to his role as team advisor. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, he guided the team through creating and implementing pandemic protocols to ensure team safety while they worked. These preparations allowed the team to continue their work and eventually compete in the first race since the pandemic set in, in July 2021, in which they took second place. 

Another example of Orser’s enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and skills is his involvement with the University on the Prairie summer camp. He runs the engineering track of the STEM summer camp designed for rural Minnesota high schools around Lamberton. The camp provides him with the opportunity to teach concepts from electrical engineering, and directly test course curricula on students who have little or no exposure to electrical engineering. He gets feedback from camp participants on what techniques work while nurturing their interest in science and technology that could turn them into future University of Minnesota students. Orser has also been a mentor to the Farmington school district’s FIRST Robotics team, Rogue Robotics, for over six years. In 2019, the team under his tutelage developed a smart wheelchair for then two-year old Cillian Jackson who is tackling a genetic condition that delays his physical development. The story was picked up by local and national news outlets, and the team’s efforts were recognized at the White House.   

Orser is an active educational researcher and has consistently contributed papers and article reviews to the American Society for Engineering Education. In 2017, he served on the ASEE Upper-Midwest Conference Committee. In a recent publication, “Utilizing Peer Learning Assistants to Improve Student Outcomes in an Introductory ECE Course,” he presents a case where he led a group of faculty and staff to identify an issue in a particularly challenging course (EE 2361), planned and implemented an intervention, and measured the outcome of the intervention. The intervention involved getting upper division undergraduate students to aid students in the lower division course. The upper division students were paid, and trained to be effective teachers and mentors with the dual goals of helping students towards success in the course, and helping them build mentoring relationships. The intervention titled “Peer Assistant Program” is now a regular support resource for the course and well used and much appreciated by both students and student course mentors.

A critical initiative that Orser has embarked on in addition to curriculum related updates and training is diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) training for TAs. He initiated the training in 2018, and it involves TAs attending University-wide DEI events, hosting speakers on DEI matters at department orientations and seminars, and opportunities for TAs to meet and engage with department, college, and University leadership regarding their own and other individuals’ DEI experiences. TAs have reported that these experiences have been helpful and even transformative in their own right, and additionally helped them build connections amongst themselves, faculty, staff, and other students. 

Orser’s initiatives have made significant measurable improvements to the undergraduate curriculum and education within the department. Student surveys consistently reveal the impact of his work, and the extent to which the improvements have positively affected our students. Surveys and other activities undertaken with TAs have led to better training and empowerment of TAs not just in the sphere of teaching the curriculum, but also in the critical spheres of inclusion and equity. His work in educational research has lessons not only for the department and the University, but for all of us dedicated to teaching, and student success. The Horace T. Morse award is an affirmation of Orser’s skill, dedication, and commitment to education. 

In 2020, teaching professor David J. Orser was a recipient of the Russell J. Penrose Teaching Award. 

Each year since 1965, the Horace T. Morse-Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education has been given to a select group of teachers who reflect the University's emphasis on the importance of high quality undergraduate education. The award is named for a former dean of General College, and recipients are inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers and carry the designation of Distinguished University Teaching Professor (faculty) or Distinguished University Teacher (P&A) throughout their careers at the University of Minnesota.