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Undergraduate Teaching Award: Kunihiko Taira recognized for excellence in undergraduate teaching by FSU

Kunihiko Taira is interested in a variety of fluid mechanics problems with research interests in the areas of computational fluid dynamics, flow control, network theory, and unsteady aerodynamics. He received the Young Investigator of the Year Award from US Office of Naval Research in 2016.

While it may seem like an easy feat, teaching well can be quite a challenge. This means not only ensuring a subject is clear and understandable, but also finding a way to help students enjoy learning. Only then will they be more likely to understand and retain the material they are taught. Kunhiko Taira has honed his engaging teaching style, earning him high marks from his students and the 2016-17 Undergraduate Teaching Award from Florida State University.

This is a student-oriented award with nominations submitted by students and alumni. Caroline Walker, a current student, shares that Taira "teaches with an energy and enthusiasm that engages students and helps them to see the practical applications of the material presented. It is evident that he wants his students to enjoy learning and to succeed, both in his course and in their future careers."

When he started teaching in 2011, Taira, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, followed traditional methods: lectures, homework, exams, etcetera. Yet Taira felt that students were not getting enough out of the courses. He felt that they were not excited enough about the material to absorb what they were learning. Through observation of teaching methods used in elementary schools, he had a thought.

"While we engineers are accustomed to top-down lectures, the elementary school teachers I observed interacted closely with every student and allowed them to express themselves, raise questions, and most importantly they take time with them. The teachers made themselves selflessly available to children to address any of their concerns," discovered Taira. "While these teachers are education professionals with years of training, we engineering professors rarely take a class in how to teach nor do we easily deviate from a traditional top-down style of instruction. I discovered that my teaching style needed to change..."

Taira took what he learned and transformed the delivery of his Numerical Methods course. He lectured less and interacted with his students more. In fact, Taira now devotes two-thirds of class time to interactive programming that allows students to express concerns about the material through productive discussions. Lectures are only one-third of the class time.

Even when lecturing, Taira does his best to give learning an entertaining edge. On the subject, he states, "To ensure lectures are fun and exciting I incorporate real-life examples of the course material illustrating how each topic can be useful in students’ careers."

Taira's enthusiasm for creating an environment of interaction in his courses also results in a more welcoming environment among students. Attesting to that fact, another current student, Orion Yeung, shares, "He [Taira] very much shows respect for the students in his class; he treats us as equals. The dynamic between him and us is more like a well-versed teaching assistant or graduate assistant instructor."

Taira's successful efforts to help his students learn is evident from student feedback. His teaching philosophy that "taking a class should be very exciting and lead to the mastery of life long skills," is working. Thus it is no surprise that he has earned Florida State University's 2016-17 Undergraduate Teaching Award, which was presented to him on April 25th, 2017 at the FSU Alumni Center.