Mitzi Vernon, winner of Virginia Tech's 2012 William E. Wine Award, has a gift for building connections and using metaphors that allow her students to see the world in a new way. As a professor of industrial design in the School of Architecture + Design, she takes a multifaceted approach to her teaching and research. As she explains it, "I speak three languages: design, engineering, and science."
In the studio, Vernon is not the star of the show; she is a guide and a moderator, but not a lecturer. On a recent critique day, students presented two form projects designed to strengthen their understanding of such concepts as planes, intersections, volume, flow, acceleration, and fair curves, all of which will provide a solid foundation for the students' future work. The results of their efforts are elegant creations of wood, metal, acrylic, and illustration board.
The entire group actively contributes to the critique, offering feedback and suggestions. The atmosphere is supportive, but Vernon is not one to encourage platitudes. She said that while it can be challenging to get the students to be critical of one another, they need that rigor to improve.
Students describe Vernon's style as both nurturing and demanding. Jonathan Kim, a sophomore industrial design student in Vernon's second-year studio, said, "I love the way she gives feedback. It's very constructive; if you need to change something, she'll tell you, and I love that about her."
"[Vernon's teaching] has a real emphasis on craftsmanship and not settling for what comes out first or what comes out easy, but what's truly right visually," said Martha Sullivan (M.S. architecture '06), an instructor for a computer-aided design class that relates to the work Vernon's students are doing in the studio. "What she teaches them in studio is to never settle for ‘almost.'"
Vernon is not interested in having her students memorize answers from textbooks; she facilitates critical-thinking skills. Elizabeth Stokley (industrial design '12) said of Vernon's teaching style, "She doesn't give all the right answers, but rather all the right questions—probing, uncompromising, and practical—encouraging students to search rather than follow."
Said Vernon, "I delight when students complete work that presents an understanding of the tenets I have tried to convey, but delight is short-lived. What I hope is there has been a transformation, that the students' thinking has shifted, unveiling more questions than when they began. I hope that they are not satisfied, but eager to press forward, recognizing along the way that they may have to keep asking the questions."
Vernon incorporates learning methods that help students approach design challenges in new ways. When introducing ergonomics, for example, she invites Carol Burch-Brown, a professor in the School of Visual Arts, to conduct a life-drawing exercise so that the students understand the anatomy and mechanics of the hand in order to create improved form and utility in product design. Vernon's approach to teaching design covers all facets, from suiting the needs of end users to planning for the manufacturing process.
While studying physics at Stanford in pursuit of her master's degree in engineering, Vernon discovered something about her own learning that influenced her teaching and research. As she explained, "I could grasp scientific phenomena through drawing, modeling, and metaphors."
That ability to understand scientific phenomena as metaphors has not only strengthened her pedagogy in the studio, but also influenced her research on using design to teach scientific concepts that are abstract and invisible. Case in point: She leads Fields Everywhere, a continuing research project to develop interactive exhibits that began as a way to teach children about physics principles including gravitational, acoustic, and electromagnetic fields.
Likewise, Vernon's teaching approach in and outside of the classroom is lighting up young minds, one at a time. From inspiring students in her classroom to energizing future scientists, Vernon recognizes that the world has many complex design problems, and that to solve them, it's important to imagine what might be possible rather than relying on what has been done in the past.