Faculty Spotlight: Steve Mitchell
When students enroll in one of Steve Mitchell’s classes, they soon find that their instructor possesses a wealth of in-the-field experience. A senior lecturer at the University of Maryland’s mechanical engineering department, Mitchell honed his skills at a startup that specialized in laser and lidar systems.
As an instructor, Mitchell says, he seeks to instill math and physics fundamentals, and then have the students apply these through project-based learning.
“I want the students to be writing code, building and deploying hardware, using a 3D printer, and analyzing data,” he says. “It’s exciting for them and for me, and it gives me an opportunity to bring my experience into the classroom.”
One very visible sign of Mitchell’s commitment to hands-on learning: a large collection of miniature, 3D-printed terrapin turtles, as well as other figurines and objects.
Mitchell’s senior-level remote sensing class is the source of this proliferation. For their final project, he has his students build Raspberry Pi-based laser-ranging devices, then sends them out to scan objects and landmarks around campus. A statue of Testudo, UMD’s terrapin mascot, is a popular target.
The students then create models of the scanned objects in MatLab, and finally 3D-print the results. Dozens have ended up in Mitchell’s office. “I have a village of them, and it’s growing,” he jokes.
A Professional Engineer Who Discovered a Love of Teaching
The vibe in Mitchell’s classes reflects not only his approach to pedagogy, but also his love of being an instructor and mentor.
Teaching, for Mitchell, began as a side hustle, something he did on top of his 50 to 60-hour-a-week day job. That might sound exhausting, yet Mitchell says that teaching energized him. So much so, in fact, that he eventually decided to make it his full-time profession, even though it meant sacrificing the higher pay he was earning in industry.
“I want the students to be writing code, building and deploying hardware, using a 3D printer, and analyzing data. It’s exciting for them and for me, and it gives me an opportunity to bring my experience into the classroom.”
“I wasn’t expecting to get so engrossed in it,” Mitchell said, “but it turned out to be something I really loved doing. And I’ve never looked back.”
His enthusiasm has not gone unheralded; he’s won the Purple Camshaft Faculty Award for excellence in teaching, a special faculty award from Pi Tau Sigma/Maryland Tau Mu, and the 2019 Most Valuable Professor Award. Just a few weeks ago, he received a promotion to senior lecturer.
He currently teaches courses in electronics and instrumentation (“it’s really more of a mechatronics course,” Mitchell says),, remote sensing, vibrations, controls and optimization, statistical methods for product and process development, and analog electronics.
In addition, outside of the mechanical engineering department he teaches a course in autonomous robotics for UMD’s Master of Engineering (M.Eng) program in robotics, which is geared mainly towards working professionals.
A Terp Mentoring Terps
Mitchell is a Terp himselfg, having earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from UMD in 2005. He studied with some of the same professors that his students are familiar with today. He brings to the classroom an empathy and understanding that is born of shared experience.
He also holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineeringg—a misnomer, he says, since most of his coursework was in electrical engineering. “I’m a mutt,” he says. “And I encourage students to be interdisciplinary.”
His weak point? “My movie and pop culture references are a bit out of date," he said. “The year 2005 is a long way off, and each year fewer people get the reference or laugh at my jokes!”
That problem aside, he loves what he does and is thrilled to be teaching at UMD. “It’s really like coming home,” he said.
Published April 26, 2022