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Aaron Wagner, ECE, Michael Tien '72 Award

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Michael Tien '72 Excellence in Teaching Award

Aaron Wagner treats his students like a tour group. "I aim to play the role of a tour guide: showing students the lay of the land, pointing out interesting vistas they might otherwise miss, helping stragglers to keep up, and keeping the focus on the surroundings and not on me," he says.

In his three years at Cornell, Aaron has taught ECE 4110 Random Signals in Communications and Signal Processing and ECE 5620 Fundamental Information Theory. He volunteered to teach the large required course ECE/ENGRD 3100 Introduction to Probability and Inference for Random Signals and Systems this fall.

Lectures form the core of his classes, so Wagner tries his best to make them valuable. "Good preparation is crucial here," he says. "Achieving the right amount of interactions is also important. Too little interaction makes for a boring and static lecture. But too much interaction upsets the structure of the lecture and makes it difficult for students to mentally organize the material."

"Wagner is a phenomenal professor," reads a student evaluation from ECE 4110. "He's lucid, organized, and (most importantly) is interested in developing the understanding of his students."

That interest is just as evident outside of class. "Sometimes during office hours students smile with relief as a concept that they've been struggling to understand suddenly crystallizes," says Wagner. "Their expression is so distinctive that I never forget it."

Wagner does not assign busy work, but rather strives to create homework problems that are short, but challenging, even in his undergraduate courses. He leaves it up to the students to drill concepts. "The course is more fun for everyone if a homework problem is viewed as a puzzle to solve rather than work to be completed," he says. "I'll sometimes even embed coded references in the assignments: a problem might be about a restaurant called University City Doughnuts (UCD), a word play on a local eatery. Some students relish finding these hidden references, and I enjoy creating them."

"The instructor's in-depth knowledge of the course material is just fantastic," reads another evaluation from ECE 4110. "And homework assignment enforces students to think over the material covered in lectures."

Wagner says his students often show him new ways of thinking about the material and approaching problems, even in classes that he has taught before. "Re-teaching an engineering course at Cornell is like rereading one of the classics—even though you know the plot, you still uncover something new," he says.