Thompson and Valavi honored for teaching excellence, highlighting success of the pandemic-era Car Lab course

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Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Sept. 20, 2022

Jeff Thompson and Hossein Valavi have received the 2022 Walter Curtis Johnson Prize for Teaching Excellence, recognizing their exemplary work in undergraduate education.

The Johnson Prize is awarded by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering every other year. Selection is based on a range of criteria that includes student evaluations. Both of this year’s recipients distinguished themselves as outstanding co-teachers of ECE 302, “Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lab,” known colloquially as Car Lab and considered a rite of passage within the department.

jeff thompson and vince poor hold a plaque

Thompson and Valavi co-taught Car Lab together in the spring of 2020, when the University abruptly shifted to all-remote learning mid-term in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The disruption also brought supply chain problems that inhibited student projects. But Thompson and Valavi showed remarkable flexibility and leadership, ultimately helping the students leverage the work they had already done to successfully develop a different class of autonomous systems while at home. Many of those projects addressed pandemic-related concerns, including the need for low-cost ventilators made from widely available parts.

Thompson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, has also played a key role in the Quantum Information and Applied Physics concentrations. He has taught ECE 396 “Introduction to Quantum Computing,” ECE 457 “Experimental Methods in Quantum Computing” and ECE 568 “Implementations of Quantum Information” over several years since joining the faculty in 2016. Students said he “makes quantum computing very accessible.”

Hossein Valavi and Vince Poor hold a plaque

Valavi, an lecturer in electrical and computer engineering, has become an indispensable figure in the department’s undergraduate curriculum over the last three years. Since 2020, he has taught or co-taught ECE 115, EGR 153, ECE 203, ECE 206, ECE 302 and ECE 462/562, a range that includes circuits, logic, robotics and large-systems design. Students have said he presents the material in a caring way that centers the student experience and that he has a gift for “explaining concepts so that you can actually understand them.”