Phillip Sanger: My course is not just lecture, it’s a conversation

Phillip Sanger: My course is not just lecture, it’s a conversation
18.05.2016

— What is your educational background?

— My first degree was in physics from St. Louis University which is a Jesuit college. After my Bachelor’s diploma I spent one year as a Fulbright scholar in France studying nuclear engineering. And after my return to the States I went to the University of Wisconsin where I got my Master’s and my PhD in nuclear engineering.

— List five adjectives to describe yourself.

— Intelligent, creative, fun loving, interesting and friendly.

— What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?

— I’m very at ease with my students. So when I teach my courses it’s a conversation. And so it’s not just lecture, it’s a conversation and I connect with their eyes, I connect with their personalities. It’s because I feel very confident in my lectures and what I do, and so that allows me to be very flexible in how I deal with the class. What else? Before I came to the university I was an engineer and a manager in industry for thirty years. So the things that I’m teaching my students about are not simply from a book. I have lived them. I know how to do them. And so I can make the subject of the classes real by giving examples of my life and how what I’m teaching them affected me and how I used it.

— What is one of your weaknesses, and how are you working to improve it?

— I always take on too many things. I say «yes» too often. Do I have to practice saying «no»? But I like doing all my stuff so. I’m probably not gonna work too hard at it. But I will try to organize myself better. So that it’s less stressful for me. I say «yes» too often. What we say in the States is a way of teaching called Project Based Learning. And so I don’t believe in just lecture about a subject or about a technology or a skill. I believe in «I tell you about it and then we do it». So: talk — do. And that’s what Project Based Learning is. And it’s because I have experience actually doing all these things, it is easy for me to take a better approach.

— What is your philosophy of education?

— I will answer this question from the point of view of America. And then I’ll answer from the point of view of Russia. In America, the biggest problem for education in my view is that education is too expensive. That is not a problem in Russia. So it is important that we guide our students to make the best choice in the courses they take and what they learn because in America they have a lot of choice of what courses they pick and where they go. That’s not the case in Russia. In Russia if you are going to be a journalist, you have no choice. That’s what you do. So it’s a good thing you have choice but then you have to make a good choice. Because it’s going to cost you much anyway. So make sure that after you leave the university you can get a good job. Having said that, all my students get jobs. One hundred percent. They get their diploma. The get a job. And a very good job. In Russia, I think, the problem that I see in my technology is that there’s not enough practical experience being given to the students. And part of that is because the professors have always been in the university. They have oftentimes never been an engineer. They have never worked as an engineer. So they’ve always been scientists or scientific related to their discipline but never actually done it, been an engineer. So how do you get practical experience into the education? One way we do it in the States is that we bring industry into our university to help us create projects and learning. In Russia apparently they don’t. That’s not what the industry thinks they should do. So somehow the Russian system must learn how to work with industry and get more practical knowledge into the education. That I think is the biggest issue.

— What are some of the trends, issues, and methodologies in education that relate to your specific curriculum area?

— Over many years in industry I have created a program that allows industry to propose and make projects or give projects to our students. And this is a very important course for my students because it is the last time, their last course and it’s an opportunity to apply their learning into this real world, a project, a real problem that came from industry, and I created this program and created a way to make it sustainable. So that year after year we can do it. And the students, even though they complain that it is a very difficult course, when I see them many years later oftentimes they say ‘Your course was the most important course that I took’. So I think that’s my greatest success is that afterwards the students realize that what I was teaching them was important and that it helped them become a better engineer.

— When was your first visit to NArFU? What were your expectations and were they satisfied?

— In May of 2014, two years ago. Yes, they were satisfied. What were they? I didn’t have any. I came because I had friends, two friends here who invited me to come. And I’m always looking for opportunities to do things, to collaborate, to work together. And so that first trip was a conversation with your Vice-Rector, Natalia Chicherina. And with the Director of the Oil and Gas Institute, and Olga Liubova, the Director of the Energy and Transport Institute. And we explored what I might do to help them advance their program. A lot of ideas. I enjoyed meeting them. And through this meeting we identified a possibility of me coming back and teaching in the area of project management, using Project Based Learning as pedagogy.

— How did you become a Fulbright Specialist Program candidate?

— I volunteered. The Fulbright Specialist Program is a special program and different from any other of the Fulbright programs. In the specialist program we volunteer. We put ourselves on the list of specialists that are available to other countries to work with them, to develop new programs, new classes or new capabilities. And so after the visit to NArFU we talked with the Fulbright Office in Moscow and put a proposal to them. I was already a specialist. So I put a proposal to them that I would come and help NArFU to make a program on Project Based Learning and Project Management. It was accepted. They said «yes».

— Why do you want to teach at the Northern Arctic Federal University?

— I’m always interested in new experiences. Because even though I teach your students I’m always learning. And the more diverse, the more different the teaching experience is the more I’ll be able to learn. That’s why I want to come to NArFU to teach, not just the faculty but the real students of yours. And I loved your students.

— How can you estimate and compare your groups of students at NArFU from different periods (October — teachers, February — students, April — industry)?

— They are all very different. I think I would have to say that I enjoyed the students the most. The students in my class were great. They were excited, they paid attention, they were energetic, their teams, they did great things. They were listening to exactly what I was saying. So I enjoyed the students very much. The problem with the faculty is they were also teaching and they were very busy. So I was happy they were able to give me some time to teach. But it was very hard on them. Because it was squeezed into all the other classes and all the other things they were doing. But they also listened and I hope they learnt. Industry was also a very interesting group. I had to change the course. And then I realized that the students in this course were not beginners. They already had skills. So once I realized that I had to add other things that the students and the faculty were not ready for, but these students needed. They all paid attention and I think they were pleased they learnt something. But they all made good skyscrapers. All of the students, the faculty and the industry people, all made good skyscrapers. And all behaved in very different way.

— What do you think is the greatest challenge facing Russian students today?

— Getting a good job, I think. I think your students, the students I have met, they want to be here, they want to do, they want to learn. That’s very good. I think their biggest challenge is to learn things that are going to let them have a good career. And I think the university system is good except it doesn’t have any practical knowledge. There’s no practical information. And how do they get their learning from books and from the lectures, and how do they learn to apply it? That would be the biggest challenge but if they do it they will do well in their career.

— What is the most difficult aspect of teaching today in general?

— Keeping my students’ attention. The biggest challenge is how do I keep their attention and figure out a way to squeeze what I want to teach them in their busy life. And one of the biggest challenges for professors is to get enough time and their brain. Because even though they are in the classroom and even sometimes they are looking right at you their mind is over here and over there and off there and up there. So getting and keeping their attention long enough to teach them is the biggest challenge for our students today, this generation.

— What can you contribute to our university?

— There’s a lot of things I can contribute to you and your university. I think, as I have said, I’ve introduced this university to the concept of Project Based Learning. I think, I’ve started a conversation with industry that might interest some of them in making projects at NArFU. I think that even if I teach the same courses here that have been taught by other people I bring in different perspective. I approached the problem in a different way. And I think I offer something, I offer an opportunity for students at NArFU to actually meet Americans. And to encourage and to help grow a positive attitude between Russians and Americans. I talked to several classes of students. And for some I’m the first American they have ever met. And it turns out I’m just a normal human being. And not much different than them. And the more students and people of Russia understand that we are very similar, the easier it will for the world or be a more peaceful place. I could do a lot of things. I can also help structure Project Management across the university as well. But that would be if somebody makes the decision.

I have made some dear friends which I hope will last a long time. My Russian is getting a little bit better. And I have had the opportunity to see a different part of the world. It’s very cold up here. But I have been able to see different cultural things: museums, about the Arctic. And I went to visit the place where they have old cabins, old village, Maliye Korely. I’ve learnt about another place in the world, very nice people and I hope to come back.

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