Ansell honored for undergraduate teaching excellence


Debra Levey Larson

Phillip Ansell
Phillip Ansell

Associate Professor Phillip Ansell received The Grainger College of Engineering 2022 Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award. Ansell joined the faculty in the Department of Aerospace Engineering in January 2015.

During Ansell’s first year of teaching, he created an entirely new set of in-class demonstrations to enhance a core junior-level course on incompressible flow, which is required for all undergraduate students in aerospace engineering.

“These demonstrations make clear that when Professor Ansell refers in his teaching and learning statement to his focus on making students ‘think like engineers, he is not kidding,” said AE Associate Professor Tim Bretl. “I have heard countless examples from him over the years of questions that can be accessed through material learned in class but that do not have ‘one right answer’ and that, most importantly, appeal to students’ curiosity and sense of fun.”

In his teaching philosophy, Ansell describes his role as not just a course instructor in engineering subject matter. He believes he is also there to teach them soft skills.

“While our curriculum admirably prepares students in fundamental scientific disciplines, often students are engrained with a mindset that problem solving entails hunting for equations in search for a correct answer to a well-posed problem – an outlook that is entirely normal and appropriate for undergraduate students transitioning into junior- or senior-level coursework,” Ansell wrote. “It is my role to teach students how to think like engineers. One way that this goal is achieved is by using assignments that may not have step-by-step instructions to solve. Instead, students are encouraged to assess the application inherent to the problem, think about the associated physics, and determine an appropriate method to obtain a solution. In many of these cases, there are numerous ways to approach the problem, all of which are equally valid.”

Ansell has taught numerous undergraduate courses, including Design, Build, Fly, Incompressible Flow, Applied Aerodynamics, Aircraft Flight Mechanics, and Wing Theory. He also developed a graduate-level course on unsteady aerodynamics.

He is consistently included in the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students.

Rahim Hudda, one of Ansell’s former students, talked about how Ansell demonstrated flexibility during the fall 2020 semester – the first fully online semester due to Covid-19.

“Professor Ansell values students learning the content and enjoying the intricacies of aerodynamics,” Hudda said. “An emphasis was placed on how specific content is used in the real world and how the content fits into the larger concepts of the class. I think explaining how course material is used in the real world is a critical part of being an educator. For example, some homework assignments involved analyzing data that he himself had collected in an aircraft. This gave more significance to the assignment since it extended beyond a typical textbook problem with fabricated values and data. He explained how content that seems dry in the classroom is essential in research and industry.

“Above all, I think this class helped ease students into having fun with the content as much as possible during a stressful semester,” Hudda said. “There was a very clear atmosphere of ‘we’re here to learn the content together and I’m here to guide you through important tenets of aerodynamics.’ As expected, Professor Ansell was easily accessible in office hours and after class answering many questions during and after lectures.”

Another example of how Ansell continues to give of himself outside of the classroom is his three-year stint as faculty mentor for the AIAA Design, Build, Fly registered student organization. To strengthen the leadership team and improve the organizational skills of the group, Ansell instituted an open seminar course to complement with DBF activities. This change led to improvements in the hands-on skills learned by the participants and the representation of Illinois at DBF competitions.