After distinguished service in the Air Force and private sector, Michael Prairie, Ph.D., returned to Norwich, his alma mater, in 2008 to join the faculty of the David Crawford School of Engineering. Pr.airie holds a Master of Science from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology and a doctorate from North Carolina State University. At Norwich, he chairs the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
We asked the associate professor to reflect on what excites his professional passions.
Q: Why do you teach?
A: 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.
Q: What drives your passion for your field?
A: 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.
Q: What questions do you explore in your scholarship?
A: 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?”
March 3, 2017, saw the unveiling of the new Norwich University Center for Global Resilience and Security (CGRS), a research center of excellence dedicated to the advancement of the interrelationships between human resilience and security in the face of global challenges.
CGRS is focused on climate change, water, energy, and infrastructure and their impact on resilience and security. The founding director is Tara Kulkarni, assistant professor of civil engineering.
At the launch event in Milano Ballroom, Distinguished Leader in Residence Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, U.S. Army (Ret.) ’59 (pictured) didn’t mince words about climate change, saying we either pay now or pay later.
“It’s a serious challenge, and we can’t avoid it,” he said. “This, what we are talking about today, is a serious matter not to be simply wished away as mythology. It’s not a myth — it’s real.”
The center’s abbreviated name, CGRS, bears General Sullivan’s initials. The CGRS vision includes creating a “society that is strong, healthy, and secure, locally and globally, in the face of a changing climate.”
“I teach primarily for two reasons. First, I attempt to convey theoretical knowledge in a particular field and then relate that to practical knowledge through examples that will resonate with the students so they gain a deeper real world, both theoretical and practical, understanding of concepts. Secondly, I teach because I want to challenge students to think for themselves.”
“I prefer to teach the "people-side" of business and management, because leadership, management, and success in almost any human endeavor almost always boils down to successful understanding of the human dimensions involved. By this, I mean that when we better understand people and facilitate better human interactions, we are much more likely to succeed in any field.”
“Predictably, most of my graduate and post-graduate research focuses on better understanding human behavior and interactions. Particularly, I am very interested in better understanding undergraduate attrition and retention in college-aged populations and what steps may be successful in making success more likely.”
“I teach because I care. I want future engineers to be conceptually creative, qualitatively strong, and eloquent in their designs. I want them to be able to research, differentiate between fact and fiction, and make real change. I also want them to be masters of communication—written, verbal, and non-verbal—instead of hiding behind statements like, ‘I can’t write. I’m an engineer, not an English major.’”
“My passion for my field of environmental engineering, specifically water engineering, is driven by statistics like the ones cited by the United Nations Environment Programme: That one child under the age of five dies every twenty seconds from water-related disease. It’s driven by growing up in India, where polluted skies and garbage piled up on the sides of streets are common sights. I’m inspired by the recent Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) campaigns and the calls to action at various levels for people become stewards of their lands and work together to prevent meaningless deaths by keeping our environment clean.”
“Through my scholarship, I want to learn how to engineer water infrastructure to make our communities more resilient against flooding and drought and to ensure universal access to clean water and sanitation. I seek to engineer green designs, integrating nature, and using minimal resources. My scholarship also delves into questions on pedagogical strategies, such as service learning, to provide our students the best engineering education possible.”
I teach because I love the subject of architecture, and I love seeing students discover the world through architecture. Studying architecture gives a person a refined lens for looking at the world, and it is great to see students learning to look at the world through that lens. Norwich is a place where students transform themselves into skilled professionals able to contribute as citizens to making the world a better place to live in. I love seeing that transformation take place.
At its core, architecture is about beauty and complexity of thought. In any city on the planet you can look for buildings that are proof of human aspiration. That search for beauty is what drives me. To paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, if a solution to a practical problem is not beautiful, then it really did not solve the problem.
My scholarship is focused on drawing people’s attention to ways of practicing architecture that are non-traditional. I am interested in DIY as an ethic and a practice. A question I ask is, how can a person learn how to make buildings while making buildings, without necessarily knowing how to make buildings before they start? I also perennially ask the question, if there is a punk rock equivalent in architecture, what is it?”