Tim Bretl to receive college and campus teaching awards


Debra Levey Larson

Tim Bretl
Tim Bretl
Teaching is hard. If you don’t believe it, just ask Tim Bretl.

In his teaching and learning philosophy statement, Tim Bretl describes his disastrous first day of class teaching introductory dynamics in 2007 at the University of Illinois and the subsequent downward spiral for the rest of the semester. “Things went so poorly that the department dropped the course from our curriculum and asked students to take a different course instead.  From my first day of class, I learned that teaching is hard.”

Bretl obviously learned from his early teaching experience. This spring he will receive both the College of Engineering Teaching Excellence award and the award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the U of I campus level.  

He says, today, he works hard to learn the names of every student in every class—some have over 100—and to focus on projects and not problem sets. He has also put considerable time and effort into developing the PrairieLearn system for online homework and exams. About the system, one student wrote, “Students can complete each homework problem multiple times—shifting the focus from worrying about the homework score to truly understanding the concept.”

As if teaching engineering to college students isn’t challenging enough, over the past five years, Bretl has volunteered through the Education Justice Project to teach two engineering courses –Introduction to Robotics and Aerospace Control Systems—at the Danville Correctional Center. The facility is a medium-security adult male prison located in east-central Illinois. Students in both courses received credit (and a transcript) from the University of Illinois.

Bretl says he does it for three reasons: the system of mass incarceration in the United States needs reform; higher-education to the incarcerated population has been shown to result in lower rates of re-incarceration and the children of incarcerated men and women are more likely to attend college; and the experience has pushed him to grow as a teacher.

Although Bretl stresses that one should in no way idealize education in prison, the intensity of the place can create magical teaching moments. One such moment occurred when he led a workshop on classical geometry in which he and the students set out to prove the Pythagorean theorem. After two hours spent mapping the entire logical flow that leads from basic axioms through 40 or so propositions and finally to the main proof, Bretl says the students were overwhelmed and beginning to tune out. Then, after some hesitant discussion, everything flipped.

“It was not bad that the proof filled the chalkboard—it was a miracle that it was contained there,” Bretl says. “The spaghetti of circles and arrows was not a mess—it was a painted canvas that told us what was important. This moment was the climax of a symphony. It is the reason that I teach.”

Bretl will receive the campus award at the Celebration of Teaching Excellence on Thursday, April 12, 2018, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the ballroom at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.