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Swanson School of Engineering Names Art of Making Professor Joseph Samosky as its 2018 Outstanding Educator

PITTSBURGH (May 14, 2018) … In recognition of his excellence in teaching and development of its Art of Making program, the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering presented Joseph Samosky, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering, with its 2018 Outstanding Educator Award. 

Dr. Samosky joined the Swanson School full time in 2014 after seven years at the Pitt medical school. He came from an interdisciplinary educational background with undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and behavioral neuroscience from Pitt, a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a doctorate in medical engineering from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology. These diverse academic experiences helped shape his unique pedagogical approach.

“I’m an enthusiastic advocate of experiential and exploratory learning, and the idea that building is a way of thinking,” said Dr. Samosky. “I hope to engage students in a process of hands-on experience and active discovery of the why to motivate learning the how of engineering.” 

In 2013, Pitt joined the NSF’s Epicenter (Engineering Pathways to Innovation) program, which created an opportunity for Dr. Samosky to utilize his passion for this style of learning to develop a design-centered course called The Art of Making. In this course, students apply innovative methods to solve real-world problems while gaining hands-on experience with cutting-edge technologies including robotics, smart systems, and user interfaces. It is offered in the Swanson School to first-year and upper-level undergraduate students.

Dr. Samosky said, “I recruited a group of the most innovative and enthusiastic engineering students I could find, and we started weekly brainstorming meetings we called ‘jam sessions’, using jazz as a metaphor for combining creative improvisation and rigorous technique.” The team also designed a new learning environment for the course: they explored and tested different technology learning tools, brought in carloads of furniture and prototyping supplies, and built out Benedum Hall’s G34 Innovation Space. The result was a 24/7 resource that provides students with a “home base for innovation” and the freedom to explore their creativity.  

“G34 is a collaborative space that promotes peer-to-peer learning. Our first rule of use for the room is: help each other and share your ideas,” explained Dr. Samosky. “There are a lot of materials and tools in G34, but the most important part of G34 is the people. We made design choices considering carefully how and what we wanted the space itself to communicate, as a communal place to gather and explore.” As one student describes, “G34 is so much more than a workspace. It is a home for a diverse community of students, course alumni, and staff who support and bring out the best in one another.” (See a video of G34 in action. )

Outside G34 are interactive display cases of student projects and a “Video Wall” display that streams student projects and activities for passersby. Currently, over 350 students have access to the Innovation Space; students from all Swanson School departments in 14 courses, 3 student clubs, and multiple Innovation Institute competitions have used the space to develop projects.

G34-spaceArt of Making students and TAs explore creating a novel human-computer interface in the G34 Innovation Space.

Enthusiasm for The Art of Making is evident in the course evaluations, which played a role in Dr. Samosky’s selection for this highly competitive award. In the most recent two offerings of the course, he received overall teaching effectiveness scores of 4.92 and 4.93/5. The human-centered design approach of the course has achieved important results for students, including student teams from The Art of Making winning the Overall Best Project award at the Swanson School Design Expo twice in two years.

A student describes the course as, “How to design the world I want to live in. The skills and perspectives I cultivated in this class make me view our world in a completely new way, and because of this class I believe I'll be able to effectively begin developing answers to ambiguous ‘big-idea’ problems.” Another states, “We learned more in a semester than I thought I could learn from 4 years of classes.” A course alumna and teaching assistant said, “The Art of Making gave me not only concrete skills but, more importantly, the confidence to believe that I have something valuable to contribute, even this early in my engineering education. It truly changed my life.”

In addition to the establishment of this course, Dr. Samosky has served as a mentor for 27 bioengineering senior design teams, advising a total of 130 students. The undergraduate projects mentored by Dr. Samosky have led to 33 students being co-authors on 14 papers and conference presentations, and co-inventors on 8 invention disclosures and provisional patents and 2 issued patents. 

“Joe is an outstanding educator who has developed and continues to develop novel approaches to experiential learning and incorporating design thinking in engineering education,” said Sanjeev Shroff, professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering. “I strongly believe that he has positively impacted the innovation and entrepreneurship culture within the Swanson School.”

Dr. Samosky plans to continue encouraging students to push the boundaries of engineering. He said, “As an engineering educator I want to empower students to innovate effective solutions to real-world problems, inspire them to have creative confidence, help them enjoy the creative paradigm of engineering that transforms thoughts into new and useful artifacts in the world, and enhance their ability to successfully invent the future, including their own life and career pathways.”