Spotlight on Teaching: Yale Patt and Ramesh Yerraballi

In today’s digital age, teaching methods are constantly evolving and advancing. New instructional technologies, progressive pedagogical philosophies and experiential learning initiatives are changing the way we educate engineers. And while these developments have proven to help prepare students for the challenges and careers of the 21st century, it is good, old-fashioned teaching that is still at the helm.

Case in point: Cockrell School of Engineering professors Yale Patt and Ramesh Yerraballi. They have distinctive teaching styles — the former brings an old-school approach and the latter a modern flair — but both aim to connect with students and communicate the fundamentals. And both are consistently recognized by students, administrators and fellow educators for their excellence in teaching, and they received their latest teaching accolades this spring. We caught up with them at the end of the semester to learn more about their approaches to teaching and what drives them as educators.

Good Humor, Fundamental Teaching

yale patt

Students who take Yale Patt’s computer architecture class won’t ever see a flashy PowerPoint presentation. That’s because Patt, who is an internationally recognized expert in computer engineering, relies simply on hand-written notes and a black marker on a whiteboard.

“There’s no glitz. It’s just old-fashioned teaching. What I strive for is explaining things clearly,” said Patt, professor in the Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering, the Ernest Cockrell, Jr. Centennial Chair in Engineering and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. “The focus is on the fundamentals. You have to connect with the class.”

Patt brings his own unique style to the classroom, with a booming voice laced with a Boston accent and a penchant for witty remarks. He engages students with humor, while communicating the complex subject of computer architecture. This teaching approach has earned him a slew of awards over the years. Most recently, the Texas Friar Society, the university’s oldest honor society, presented him with the 2017 Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship, the largest undergraduate teaching award at UT Austin.

Even though Patt sets high expectations for his students, he offers support through a team approach to teaching. As he goes over material in class, he encourages his students to be attentive and ask sharp questions. And even at 77 years old, Patt also sets the bar high for himself, as is evidenced in his Ten Commandments of Good Teaching. He insists that his TAs sit in on every class and give him immediate feedback on how clear his explanations were.

“No matter how many times I teach a course, I think it’s important to learn how to teach it better. Some days I just don’t good a job. Not every lecture is brilliant. I want them to tell me where I went wrong,” he said. “These TAs are excellent, and they know the material. Their feedback helps me to give better lectures and to better connect with the students.”

Patt’s main motivation comes from seeing how his teaching makes a difference for students, but the thank-you notes he receives certainly help.

“I get emails all the time from students who tell me, often years after they were in my class, about the impact I’ve made in their lives,” Patt said. “It’s exciting to actually make a difference.”

What Students Say

“He has an amazing wealth of knowledge in this field. The random facts that he can pull out about specific processors that are still relevant to the discussion amaze me every time. He cracks jokes with us, but he’s invested in all his students. He makes a point to get to know us and encourage us in our questions. He’s willing to go over anything you missed.” — Stephanie Darnell, junior

“A lot of people complain about this class because it’s hard, but that’s good because it really does challenge you. He pushes you to do well. Patt is very loud, very charismatic; he definitely makes sure you’re paying attention and you’re awake. He can be a little gruff and intimidating, but he really cares about his students.” — Amanda Akin, senior

Meditative Teaching with a Modern Tool

ramesh yerraballi

One of the things that Ramesh Yerraballi loves most about teaching is that it can be a type of mindful meditation. When he’s in class, he says, he clears his mind of day-to-day issues and concentrates solely and simply on teaching students.

“Every day, for two hours a day typically, I am in front of an audience. I’m completely free of any distractions and the sole thing on my mind is to get across an idea as clearly as possible to a receptive audience,” said Yerraballi, a distinguished senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It’s almost meditative. For those two hours, nothing in the world can bother me.”

He starts with a loose outline of the subject matter, then takes cues from his students and, depending on how they react, shifts the lecture to make sure they are connecting with the concepts.

With more than 21 years of teaching under his belt, Yerraballi has developed a teaching philosophy that blends fundamentals with real-world examples. He brings a modern, interactive approach to the classroom, which includes the integration of a new teaching tool that he invented.

YDraw is a software program that draws out equations as the instructor lectures, drags and drops material, and switches colors instantly on screen. Unlike a static PowerPoint presentation, Yerraballi’s lessons come to life as he teaches them, giving him the flexibility to respond to questions from the class. The lectures are recorded and then quickly uploaded at the end of class.

His contemporary teaching style and easygoing personality inspire students. Yerraballi has been receiving teaching awards and acknowledgements since arriving at UT Austin eight years ago. Most recently, he received the Dads’ Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship for Fall 2017, one of four fellowships given annually by the University of Texas System Board of Regents that recognizes excellence in teaching and a commitment to undergraduate education.

Students have selected Yerraballi for department or school teaching awards nearly every year he has taught at Cockrell School. This year, he once again received an Undergraduate Advisory Board Excellence in Teaching Award from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“When students honor me with an award, I feel very valued and very proud. It’s an affirmation from the people you actually affect,” Yerraballi said.”

What Students Say

“He’s a great teacher. The good thing is that he doesn’t teach with PowerPoints. Since he’s writing the lecture as he teaches, it’s more interactive.” — Sneha Pendharkar, freshman

“I feel like he’s down to earth and he knows what he’s talking about. He gives a lot of real-world examples; he knows how to connect with students. He knows how to relate to them and show them his more social side, his personality.” — Khalid Ahmad, sophomore

Spring 2017 Teaching Awards

Student Engineering Council’s Most Exemplary Faculty Members

Raghav Mahalingam, Department of Aerospace and Engineering Mechanics

Nina K. Telang, Department of Biomedical Engineering

Paola Passalacqua, Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering

Michael Poehl, McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering

Christine Julien, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Billy Wood, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Mukul Sharma, Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering

Additional Awards

Gregory Rodin, Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Lunar Council Teaching Award

Guihu Yu, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards Program

Masa Prodanovic, Named to Texas Exas Alcalde’s Texas 10

Stephen Boyles, Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Teaching Award

Kasey Faust, Ervin S. Perry Student Appreciation Award

Neal Hall and Craig Chase, The Gordon T. Lepley IV Endowed Memorial Teaching Award