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Larry Bonassar, BME, Fiona Ip Li '78 and Donald Li '75 Award

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Fiona Ip Li '78 and Donald Li '75 Excellence in Teaching Award

Since starting at Cornell in 2003, Larry Bonassar says one thing has become clear—how lucky he feels to be teaching here. "Cornell students are so talented and enthusiastic that it's easy to tap into their energy and interest in the material," he says. "We have world class facilities and world class students."

But it isn't always easy. "I tend to struggle with aspects of the course that deal with grading and evaluation of student performance," says Bonassar. "I find it difficult to balance wanting to challenge students with making assignments or exams that are tractable for all the students in class."

The rewards, however, more than compensate for the challenges. "During last year's commencement ceremony, a student introduced me to her parents and told me that I was her favorite teacher at Cornell," he says. "This is even more rewarding because she was a very quiet person who didn't really speak up much in class. Without her comment, I wouldn't have known that she enjoyed my classes."

Bonassar gives traditional lectures, homework, and exams. To keep things from getting too dry, he gives many examples of how the material relates to everyday life. "Teaching courses on physiology and regenerative medicine makes this a bit easier," he says. "Most people know someone who has arthritis or heart disease or asthma. If you can make the ideas and equations that we use in class relate to these diseases, it's very easy to engage students."

In recent years, Bonassar has tried to incorporate assignments and term projects to get students to look beyond the textbook and lecture notes. In his graduate level Principles of Tissue Engineering he now includes a term project that is an NIH-style research proposal. "While some other courses include such a project, a unique feature of BME 6650 is that the projects are evaluated in part by students convening a peer-review panel in place of a final exam," writes BME chair Mike Shuler in his nomination letter. "Because their work is being evaluated by their peers, students focus on communicating their ideas more effectively. Further, reading their peers proposals broadens their scope of knowledge and enhances their critical thinking skills."

"The final project and the student lectures were great at teaching skills of critical reading that will be needed in the future," reads one student evaluation of the class.

"This is probably one of the best taught courses in engineering," writes another student. "Some very technical concepts are made very clear because Dr. Bonassar is an awesome teacher."

There are two things that Bonassar wishes people had told him when he started teaching. "The first is to realize that your own calibration for what material is easy or hard is likely out of whack. Don't worry that an assignment or exam is too easy; it's likely not," he says. "The second is to make your expectations clear to your class early and often. Put them in writing, restate them in class, and tell people in person. Students have an extremely keen sense of fairness—the more you explain and restate the rules of the class, the easier it is for everyone."