BY SEAN MARKEY | NU Office of Communications
Updated January 31, 2017
After distinguished service in the Air Force and private sector, Michael Prairie, PhD, returned to Norwich, his alma mater, in 2008 to join the faculty of the David Crawford School of Engineering. Prairie holds an MS from the Air Force Institute of Technology and a PhD from North Carolina State University. At Norwich, he chairs the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Norwich. We asked the associate professor to reflect on what excites his professional passions.
Why do you teach?
I teach because it inspires me. As students mature, they tend to ask harder questions, and helping them find the answers gives me a chance to learn new things. Not too long ago, I came to really appreciate that people have different ways of knowing things, with my way being in pictures and images of concepts and how they relate to other things that I know. Articulating that to someone who thinks differently than me is a challenge. So I look for ways to help them make their own connections, so they can see how new concepts fit with what is already in their heads. The reward is the “aha!” moment when the new idea drops into place for the student. Especially when the students start to build their own connections and take ideas in directions I didn’t expect. I would like nothing more from my teaching than to see my students go so far in their learning as to turn around and teach me something new—to see the pupil become the master.
What drives your passion for your field?
My field in electrical and computer engineering is centered around understanding how things relate to their surroundings by looking for their signatures. If I can use the right kind of sensor to see how something is working, or look for an imprint of that thing in something else, I can turn that observation into a signal that can then be examined and analyzed. If all goes well, I can see a feature or signature in the data that will allow me to understand how the thing works and how I might be able to make it work better or for a different purpose. Whether the thing is how gestures made by a disabled person can be turned into signals to control a device for daily living, or it is how air flows through the whistle mechanism of a flute in the context of my acoustics research, making those useful connections is what keeps me going.
What questions do you explore in your scholarship?
The word “scholarship” is a curious term, as it suggests the academic pursuit of research and publication to people who are more familiar with it in the context of research institutions than they are with what it means at an undergraduate teaching university like Norwich. There is much more to our mission to prepare our students to become useful citizens. Norwich was founded to be a place where students could grow beyond the ability to simply think and conceive great ideas as was the norm of the day; it was created as a place where they could learn to act upon and execute those great thoughts as well. That being said, with technology evolving at an explosive rate, much of my scholarship is focused more on maintain proficiency by consuming technical literature rather than creating it, and in the pedagogy of how best to use it in my teaching to prepare our students for their careers. So the big question I hope to answer through my scholarship is: “Are we doing the right things to be at the forefront of preparing students to be useful engineers in an increasingly complex technological society?”