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Tapping customer relations skills to engage students

Adam Barnes sits at a desk with a lab-in-a-box before him.
ADAM BARNES introduces students to engineering applications with tools like Lab-in-a-Box, pictured here.

Adam Barnes, assistant professor of practice, feels strongly about making every class work for his students. With more than 20 years of industry experience, Barnes has an arsenal of hands-on techniques to promote classroom engagement.

Before coming to Virginia Tech, Barnes was a senior engineer at Vatell Corporation, one of the world's leading heat flux sensor suppliers, located in Christiansburg, VA.

But the industrial experiences Barnes draws on most often are those that involved communicating with customers.

"The ability to talk to a wide range of people with different backgrounds, education levels, and language barriers serves me well," says Barnes. "It has allowed me to see things from multiple perspectives and forced me to come up with different ways to explain things without getting hung up on vocabulary."

He illustrates the advantages of this skill with an experience from one of his lectures:

"In class one day, we were discussing a problem that involved a forklift," Barnes recalls. "Halfway through the discussion, a student raised her hand and asked, 'what is a forklift?'"

"She was from another country, and although her English was excellent, 'forklift' was not a word she had ever needed to know."

For Barnes, moments like this remind him that all students have different backgrounds, with unique gaps and strengths.

"Sometimes I'm surprised by what students don't know," says Barnes. "Then other times I'm simply amazed by how savvy and imaginative they can be."

Barnes, who joined ECE after two years in Virginia Tech's Department of Engineering Education, teaches Electric Circuit Analysis Laboratory (ECE 2074) and Applied Electrical Theory (ECE 2054).

Barnes also brings his experience to the interdisciplinary Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) grant committee, which is completely revising the sophomore year curriculum. Because Barnes is driven to communicate effectively with his students, he knows that the new curriculum must connect, engage, and resonate with students of today.

"Our students want to build things, make things," says Barnes.

By tapping into this impulse to create, and linking theory with applicable and interesting projects, the team is shaping a curriculum to fully engage today's students, he explains.

"Many years ago, when I was in EE, a neat project might have been building your own AM radio receiver," says Barnes. "There are very few students who would get excited about that now but building a solar charger for their phone? That might be cool."

"There's an energy—a momentum—that arises when you have a chance to make something better," he says. "I'm glad to be here."

Introducing Adam Barnes

  • Joined ECE August 2017
  • Instructor, Virginia Tech Department of Engineering Education, 2015-2017
  • M.S., electrical engineering, Virginia Tech, 1997
  • B.S., electrical engineering, Virginia Tech, 1995