Getting to Know Engineering Professor Wilson Terrell Jr.
We asked Terrell a few questions to get to know him better.
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Professor Wilson Terrell teaches students at computers

Have you ever wondered how long hot coffee stays hot? If so, you may be interested in engineering science professor Wilson Terrell Jr.’s heat transfer course, where students conduct these types of experiments. Get to know the man who was inspired at a young age by Legos, spaceships, and strong role models who encouraged diversity in STEM—and while you’re reading, make sure to have a mix by Farley “Jackmaster” Funk playing in the background!

How do you motivate your students?

Drawing students into the lecture is important, so I’m very intentional in what occurs during class. I truly enjoy teaching, so during lectures I'm enthusiastic without being over the top. I’m not here to play the character Mantan from the movie Bamboozled, so I can only be me. I provide skeleton notes (i.e. handouts with gaps), which allow students to keep up with the lecture. They can write down not only what is on the board, but what is stated in order to put the equations and derivations into context.

I provide many active learning exercises for lecture-based courses, which motivates participation. At beginning of lecture, students answer three questions on materials covered from the previous lecture and are allowed to review their notes and discuss with others, which helps prepare for the upcoming topics. Typically, there will be one or two short breaks for students to relax, decompress, and ask questions concerning the material. 

Example problems are provided in the lecture to help connect theory to application. When we start an example problem, I go through a series of systematic steps which help engage students in the thought process. Part of that process is what I call “CSI the problem”—based on the TV show, not our building. We discuss what is physically going on in the problem, just like the CSI crew would review a crime scene. I want students to avoid looking for similar solutions, because they won’t be able to do that on my exams. After reviewing the scene, the CSI crew doesn’t have a solution immediately, or say “this scene looks like episode 1906, so person X is guilty;” rather, there is a scientific process to find the answer. 

What are some of your pre-class rituals?

I provide comments right after a lecture to use the next year in making adjustments. I try to update my lecture and skeleton notes based on those comments a couple of days before. While driving to campus that morning, I always have my house music playing. Listening to mixes from Ron Hardy, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Boolumaster, Mike Dunn, and Frankie Knuckles gets me hyped. If there is not a class before mine, I will go to the classroom and map out the lecture until it’s class time.

How did you get involved in your field of study?

I have always loved science. My parents bought me books on natural science, so I was always reading about animals and the weather. I also played with Legos, designing spaceships from my favorite cartoons. I became interested in engineering during high school. My physics teacher Ms. Pluta (RIH), who always forced me on my homework to write down the given, what to find, and a diagram, encouraged me to apply for a summer minority engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That program exposed me to many engineering disciplines and helped me decide to major in mechanical engineering when applying to college.

What is your favorite aspect of teaching? Least favorite? Why?

My favorite aspect of teaching is the academic freedom. I can decide, within reason, what’s best to cover in my courses and how to present that material without having to be micromanaged. I have a current chair who has been very supportive of my endeavors, and that has been important. Since Trinity is a small liberal arts school, my interaction with faculty from various departments has been wonderful. These “productive collisions” have been the catalyst for some amazing approaches to teaching, as well as programs to support students. Some faculty—too many to name here (but they know who they are)—have been like big brothers and sisters to me, which is why I’m still here. 

Another favorite aspect of teaching is the science and engineering facility, the Center for the Sciences and Innovation, which is amazing! CSI has created many opportunities for the engineering curriculum as well as STEM as a whole. My teaching lab and new equipment purchased when the building opened have allowed me to redesign my upper-division fluids and heat transfer lab courses so that there are more experiments for students to conduct, and it better compliments the lecture courses. CSI provides opportunities to tear down silos, as seen with the makerspace initiative. The new and future fabrication equipment planned for those spaces not only will help engineering students with their design projects but will allow others to unleash their creativity.

I’m truly excited to see all the great things our students do. It warms my heart to look in the Southwest Airlines magazine during a recent trip and see a full-page ad highlighting an engineering senior design project of emergency water supply stations for migrants, which are being placed around the southern part of Texas. One of the students on that ad is my former advisee who now works designing STEM-based demos at a children’s museum.

My least favorite aspect of teaching is grading. I teach mostly upper-division lab courses that have heavy writing requirements. Students in my courses submit individual reports, not group reports as in other engineering lab/design courses, which means I'm constantly grading. But to evaluate individual work is important. Sometimes with group reports, individuals can get away from contributing as they should. Some students constantly complain about the fluids and heat transfer labs, but my focus is on what students truly need to help them in the future.

Is engineering the hardest major at Trinity?

That statement seems to be stated by quite a few individuals. Engineering is challenging, but I would describe it as more time consuming, based on the number of courses taken, especially labs. Students have to be willing to put in the time if they want a good grade. There is plenty of support for engineering students who make the effort. They have engineering faculty who go out of their way to help, as well as Academic Support Services (the staff are wonderful). While the curriculum can be tough at times, engineering students have a well-rounded engineering and liberal arts-based education, which allows them to choose many paths for work or graduate school.

However, engineering is not for everyone, which is fine. I think some parents try to encourage their children to pursue engineering just because they are looking at job opportunities, and really don’t research other majors that they might deem as “unmarketable.” Students should really do some soul-searching when it comes to deciding a major. It should be something you enjoy: If you enjoy it, you will generally perform better, and it will open more doors after you graduate. Trinity is truly a wonderful institution because of its wide range of majors to choose from. Students here have an opportunity to take a variety of courses to help shape their paths through the Pathways curriculum along with his/her major. Trinity helps students become lifelong learners, which better prepares them for the future. 

Who inspires you and why?

Family has always been a big inspiration. My parents made education a high priority, especially my mother who was an elementary school teacher. They encouraged my sister and me to pursue our dreams. They taught us to care for others, but not to put up with bull...

I was blessed to have wonderful grandparents who also shaped my life. My grandmother Ella Armstead, who passed away a few years ago, always kept abreast on politics and world affairs. For her to vote in the 2008 and 2012 general elections was amazing. A black woman born in 1917, whose grandparents were most likely born into slavery, was able to vote for the first black president in this country’s history. I remember reflecting at the ballet booth in 2008, thinking of my ancestors who never had this opportunity that we sometimes take for granted today. Change, while can be slow, does occur, and that what inspires me every day.

As Malcolm X stated, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” This is why I’m an educator. I want to prepare students for that future, to make this country and world a better place.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Why?

I can’t see myself doing anything else than being in the education field. If I didn’t teach, I would be a director for an outreach program to encourage students from various backgrounds (first-generation, underrepresented, women) to pursue a STEM degree and hopefully attend graduate school. My mentor Dean Paul E. Parker (RIH) was a big influence in my life while in college. The overall support received from his Morrill Engineering Program was invaluable, which is why I’ve tried to give back with various programs implemented at Trinity like the McNair Scholars Program and the two NSF S-STEM scholarship programs.

Where would you like to retire?

To be honest, retiring is the last thing on my mind. I enjoy what I do.

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