Bretl Wins College, Departmental Honors for Teaching


Tim Bretl teaching AE 353.
Tim Bretl teaching AE 353.
Aerospace Engineering at Illinois Associate Prof. Timothy Bretl is the 2015 winner of the College of Engineering Collins Award for Innovative Teaching. Bretl also won the AE Teacher of the Year Award, chosen by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) student group.

With a passion for undergraduate teaching, Bretl established a two-course sequence in control theory that is required for all students in Aerospace Engineering and that is now a highlight of the curriculum.

In Spring 2014, Bretl revamped AE 353, the junior-level controls class. One key change in content was to focus on modern, state-space methods of analysis and design, previously thought as too advanced for undergraduates. Students applied these methods to design competitions held at the semester’s end.

In these competitions, students designed control systems that made a wheeled robot track a given trajectory with application to autonomous cars, and made a quadrotor move to a sequence of targets with application to package delivery. Both contests were well-received. “I felt like I was actually doing real engineering,” commented one student.

Also important were several changes in how AE 353 was taught. For example, Bretl learned the names of every student and introduced material through dialogue in class.

“Teaching is about connecting with individual students,” he said. “Learning names is one way to communicate that I care.”

This message was received. “[He] engages the class [and] knows the students,” said one appreciative student. “[Bretl] was very clearly there to help us.”

AE Associate Prof. Tim Bretl
AE Associate Prof. Tim Bretl
In Fall 2014, Bretl taught AE 483, the senior-level course in aerial robotics that he created two years earlier. In this course, students apply what they learned in AE 353 to implement and test algorithms for automatic control of quadcopters in the laboratory. It is the first chance some students get to fly something real.

The response to this new course has been overwhelming.

As one student put it, “[AE483] was by far one of the best courses I have taken at this institution. The lab sections were practical and gave a hands-on approach… what [Bretl] has done with this course is great.”

An ABET accreditation reviewer agreed, labeling Bretl’s course “truly unique among all aerospace engineering programs across the country.”

Bretl continues to try new things in both of these courses, such as allowing students to retake exams and keep their highest grade, with the understanding that partial credit would not be given. Students report that initiatives like these “allow [them] to learn more deeply about a concept, and strengthen their perseverance to do well.”

Bretl joined the AE faculty in 2006. He earned his MS and PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University in 2000 and 2005, respectively.