Dr James Stiles, a longtime associate professor of electrical engineering & computer science at the University of Kansas, has been named the recipient of the 2018 Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Professorship. The honor, which is available to faculty in the electrical engineering & computer science department, comes with a three-year cash award as well as discretionary funds. Stiles, a faculty member since 1996, said his time in private industry — he worked for Texas Instruments in the 1980s before moving to academia — helped him connect with students.
“I tell my students I'm a little bit like the private who became a general,” Stiles said. “I have a little better idea what will be expected of them when they get their first job.”
The award is just the latest honor in Stiles’ career at KU. On three separate occasions — 2000, 2004 and 2014 — EECS graduating seniors have awarded him with the Harry Tally Excellence in Teaching Award. He also was a recipient of a W.T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence in 2007.
He received widespread support from students and colleagues for this latest recognition.
“There are very few individuals that are as passionate about student learning and mentoring as Jim Stiles,” Prasad Kulkarni, EECS professor and associate chair for graduate studies, wrote in a nomination letter.
“The enthusiasm with which Dr. Stiles approaches his classroom discussions is impossible to deny,” said Jacob Davisson, a senior in electrical engineering. “It becomes clear to the astute student that Dr. Stiles is not presenting the course material merely to collect a paycheck — he really does care that students acquire and understand the topics as he understands what is expected when working in the industry.”
Dr. Stiles received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri in 1983, then worked seven years for Texas Instruments. He received his doctorate in 1996 from the University of Michigan, then came to KU. His research interests include various uses of radar, including radar remote sensing of vegetation, ground-penetrating radar and radar signal processing. He has numerous publications to his credit, including journal articles, book chapters and conference papers.
He says he often reminds students that when they graduate, employers will judge them on their knowledge and productivity — not their GPA. To that end, he focuses on why the material he teaches will be of use to students when they get their first engineering jobs.
“It's about acquiring the knowledge they're going to use for the next 40 years,” Stiles said. “All employers care about is what you know and what you do. If you get a good GPA but don't acquire a useful skill, you're going to struggle in your career."
That shapes his teaching style. "I would say I try to talk about some of the experiences I had when I was a working engineer,” Stiles said. "I think students are sometimes suspicious about what we're teaching them, that they’re just going through an academic hazing to get a credential rather than acquiring real knowledge. I try to show them and talk to them about why this stuff is important.”
Dr. Stiles is the second recipient of the professorship, which is funded by an anonymous donor. Kulkarni was the first honoree in 2017.