Creativity Inside Classroom Nets ECE Professor University Award

In or out of the classroom, Hal Tharp, associate professor and associate department head of electrical engineering, seeks new ways to engage and encourage both students and faculty.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Relations – Communications

Dr. Hal Tharp leads a classroom discussion

ECE Associate Department Head Hal S. Tharp maintains a three-point teaching philosophy: be student-centered; continuously expand your skills; and share teaching ideas with others.

This trifecta approach has built Tharp's reputation as a highly distinguished University of Arizona faculty member and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering known for his masterful and creative ways of reaching students. All of which helped earn him this year's University of Arizona Foundation Leicester and Kathryn Sherrill Creative Teaching Award.

"Dr. Tharp deserves this award. He has helped not only me, but also many others by showing the value of education and leadership in engineering," wrote Cinthya Tang, an undergraduate in electrical and computer engineering, and chair of the UA chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or UAIEEE. "He develops a genuine relationship with each of his students and strives to impart wisdom, and be an understanding, caring, and funny professor."

A favorite instructor, Tharp helps students succeed—through engagement or humor—in the most foundational subjects of electrical engineering including circuit theory, control theory and microprocessor organization.

"One word to summarize my teaching philosophy is 'conversation,'" explained Tharp, who has invested nearly three decades of work at the UA, a dozen of which as associate head of the department of electrical and computer engineering.

"Thinking about teaching and helping students learn, I consistently focus on how the teaching process is similar to a conversation, and I motivate my students to engage in a two-way conversation while I facilitate their learning."

To capture the attention and imagination of his students, Tharp employs a "passport," a multi-level project that first identifies students' individual learning styles through quizzes. With this knowledge, he feels better able to help them understand the course material, while the students understand how they learn most effectively, all of which comes together to make them more successful in each of their courses.

"Engineering principles can be a challenge to convey, and it can be easy for students and instructors to become frustrated and discouraged. Hal doesn't give up on himself or a situation and he certainly doesn't give up on his students," wrote Jim Baygents, College of Engineering's associate dean for academic affairs, on behalf of Tharp. "He believes his students will be successful—he seems to know this inherently, and so he diligently looks for ways to enable their success."

So popular is Tharp, that he regularly receives the student-voted Award for Excellence at the Student Interface in the College of Engineering. When summer rolls around, even then you'll likely find him teaching courses to help students remain on track to graduate.

Outside of the classroom, Tharp serves as the advisor for UA IEEE – a role he's held for the past 20-plus years – as well as advising the Micromouse Team whose members have participated and placed in national robotics competitions.

Even his workouts are fair game for learning.

While doing his daily exercises, he'll watch classes offered via "The Great Courses" to learn the latest creative and innovative teaching methods, which he happily shares with other faculty along with other helpful experience, advice and caring encouragement.

"Exhibiting a caring attitude helps create a welcoming classroom environment," he said. "It is an essential ingredient as students engage with difficult and sometimes rather abstract engineering material."

Editorial note: A version of this story appeared in the program for the Awards of Distinction ceremony on April 18, 2016.

University of Arizona College of Engineering