When you ask Dr. Russell Gorga’s students and his colleagues at NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles what makes him an effective teacher, you’re likely to hear the same sentiments repeated by both groups: the ability to communicate difficult concepts in understandable ways; commitment to the education of the whole person; and an irrepressible enthusiasm for teaching and mentoring.
These are traits which have earned Gorga, associate professor, in the department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS), the honor of being named an Alumni Association Distinguished Undergraduate Professor for 2017. He was recognized at an awards ceremony April 26.
This award follows others for excellence in teaching. In 2016, he received the university-level Outstanding Teacher Award (as the nominee for the Wilson College of Textiles), an award he first received in 2007. In addition, he was one of six outstanding NC State teachers selected to receive the Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher Award.
“He is the best I have ever seen at engaging students in the classroom,” said Dr. Jeffrey Joines, TECS department head. “Students in his class tell me all the time that Dr. Gorga explains things where they can completely understand at a conceptual level owing to his enthusiasm and communication skills. In addition, the respect he shows students creates an atmosphere where students feel safe and willing to engage in discussions about the subject matter rather than passively taking notes.”
As a young person, Gorga found learning came easily, until he entered an engineering curriculum. “It wasn’t that the concepts were too challenging. But it was how they were being communicated that made it more difficult than it needed to be,” he said.
Things changed when he met an older student who had a way of helping him understand. “That was a very critical moment for me. I knew I wanted to help students learn better. I realized that this was something I could do,” he said.
Gorga, who is an associate department head for TECS and director of undergraduate programs, does this by shifting direction in real-time when he realizes students aren’t making connections. He may do this in his Polymer Engineering classes or in Senior Design, the year-long capstone program for the Textile Engineering and Textile Technology degree programs.
“If I hit them with something and I can see in my active learning environment that 70 or 80 percent of the class isn’t getting it, I can stop and adjust what I’m doing. If it doesn’t work I keep trying and change with the class dynamic as I need to,” he said. “A lot of educators are data driven. That’s how they measure effectiveness. And that’s works for them. But for me it’s ‘What did their faces tell me?’ That’s the data I am looking for.”
He gives his students that same latitude to change course.
“[He] creates a setting without fear of being wrong. He supports students having the ability to explain their thought process and adjust it as needed without feeling as though they have failed. It is for this reason I have learned so much about learning itself as well as polymers,” said Rachel Raineri, a Textile Engineering senior.
For Rachel Chapla, a Textile Engineering alumnus who is now a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Duke University, Gorga’s approach to teaching – and learning – were a departure from the norm.
“As a student, I have been very uptight and grade-oriented, but Dr. Gorga’s class taught me that if I focus on actually understanding the concepts, the grades will take care of themselves,” said Chapla.
Getting students to put grades out of their mind is no easy task, but Gorga tries to transfer the emphasis from the numbers to whether or not students are meeting expectations and solving problems. He looks for thoughtfulness in their outcomes and encourages them to embrace the idea of multiple solutions.
“I de-emphasize the idea that there is one right answer. I’m sort of an engineer and an artist. I want my students to see the scientific framework and understand principles, but there are creative ways to look at solutions. You need people to ask questions that rock foundations. For creative vision to come you have to be open to more than one answer. That’s how innovations occur,” he said.
While his style inside the classroom allows students with different learning styles to thrive, his work outside of the classroom is equally focused on student success.
“His love of mentoring and helping students develop is second to none. In my academic career, I have never seen a professor engage so many undergraduates into research as Russell does,” said Joines.
Gorga has mentored over 35 undergraduate student researchers in his labs and provided guidance and support, to one extent or another, to more than 40 master’s and Ph.D. students, four high school students, and four visiting scholars.
His enthusiasm and ability to inspire extends beyond the whiteboard and lab to other faculty who look to him for ways to innovate in the classroom.
“Because of his distinguished reputation with both students and faculty colleagues, he is one of the go-to instructors in the Wilson College of Textiles when it comes to undergraduate teaching matters, and many faculty, including me, have sought him out for mentoring,” said Dr. Melissa Pasquinelli, associate professor, and associate department head for TECS.
In 2016, Gorga was named one of three NC State TH!NK Faculty Fellows who help all TH!NK faculty implement critical and creative thinking into their courses. Th!NK is an opportunity Gorga highly values: to connect with other like minded faculty to make the learning experience better and more impactful for students.
But when it comes to staying energized as a teacher, nothing compares to the act of doing.
“Something emotionally happens to me when I walk into a classroom. I don’t know how or why. I could be having the worst day, but when I step into the room everything changes. I get energized on a day-to-day basis simply by teaching.”