Faculty Mentorship Spotlight: Luke Theogarajan

Photo of Luke Theogarajan

Faculty Mentorship: Interview with Luke Theogarajan,
ECE and CE Professor

Interviewed for the Fall 2015 ECE Current newsletter

Q: You were awarded the Outstanding Teaching Award in EE for 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012; what qualities make an outstanding teacher?

Honestly, I don’t think I’m an outstanding teacher; we’ll start with that. Fundamentally, it’s just that I care. I care about what I do and what people learn. I don’t make it easy for my students; they are not given a recipe. I am a difficult professor, but I think it’s because, for the first time in their undergraduate career, students are forced to think critically, they are challenged for the first time. The year they spend with me they scream, shout, tell me I need to see a therapist, and their reviews reflect those frustrations. But really, a year after they graduate they realize that they did learn something, and that they actually enjoyed it.

Q: Do you keep in touch with any of your former students?

I just received an email today from a former student that just started working in HRL; he graduated about two years ago with an undergraduate degree. A lot of them keep in touch with me, partly because I give them recommendations for jobs, but in general they send me emails letting me know what they’re doing.

Q: Do you have any general advice for UCSB ECE students?

My general advice is to be passionate about what you’re doing. Do not go into engineering because someone told you to, but because you want to be here. This is the most important advice I can give; you really have to want this.

Q: You always have an office full of students; could you tell us more about that? What keeps them coming back?

Well, I think they keep coming back because they do so poorly on my exams! No, it’s really because one, my door is always open and two, I do really care. I give my students the time of day, and enjoy working with them. I think a lot of the time professors are too busy; it’s not that they don’t care.

Q: Describe the work that you do as a faculty adviser for undergraduate students.

There are two things I do as a faculty adviser. First, I walk through the elective courses with the student and sign off or approve of the courses they choose. Second, my kind of unofficial duty to students is to be an outlet for them to discuss their education. Should they go to grad school? Should they go into industry? Is a masters degree good enough for the field they would like to pursue? Should they complete their masters, go to industry, and come back for a PhD? Having experience in industry and academia, I feel I can help guide them, or at least give them an idea of what each field would require of them.

Photo of Luke Theogarajan at his desk

Q: Do most students come to you with a clearly defined path and goal? If not, how do you help get them there? If they do, how do you push them to grow in ways they had not considered?

Most of them are kind of feeling the water and very few know exactly where they’re going. Usually it turns out, that in a class of about 40-60 there are always about 10 students who will follow me around. They come to all my classes, no matter what class I teach they’ll be there, they’ll even take the same class three times in a row. So those kids, I generally try to see what they are good at, what their passion is. I’ll try to help them make decisions about graduate school, or if they want to go into industry what kind of job they may be looking for. I like to give them a reality check, if you’re going to get a bachelors and head into an industry position you’re just going to be at the entry level for a long time and they should be prepared for that. There is nothing wrong with it, but they shouldn’t expect a lot of responsibility. If they want more responsibility they need to earn a masters degree. Most of the time, it’s about encouraging them to go to graduate school.

Q: What do you think are the most important factors in an engineering student’s academic success?

Academic success means always questioning, being curious, not accepting the status quo, and making an effort to understand. It may be a gener ational thing, but I think a big problem these days is that students expect to come in, speed through a degree, and then push buttons. I don’t think that is going to fly in the engineering field; that is not what makes us engineers. If you really want to be successful you have to question everything, and really work hard. This is not an easy field. Just because you show up I’m not going to give you the grade; that’s not how this works. I think that’s what people expect. That has got to change. Students can’t be here because their parents told them to be an engineer, because they think it’s an easy degree, or a way to make money. They have to be passionate and sure that this is what they really want to do.

Learn about Theogarajan's research at the Biomimetic Circuits & Nanonsystems Group