Rao spends summer teaching teachers in India

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By Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS
September 14, 2009

  • ECE Professor Emeritus N. Narayano Rao spent his summer teaching teachers in India.
  • The extreme growth in engineering colleges in India has created a shortage of qualified teachers.
  • Rao plans to continue teaching in India as long as possible.

ECE Professor Emeritus N. Narayana Rao spent the summer teaching forty faculty members of colleges in India. He is pictured here (fifth from the left in the front row) with the group he taught in Mysore.
ECE Professor Emeritus N. Narayana Rao spent the summer teaching forty faculty members of colleges in India. He is pictured here (fifth from the left in the front row) with the group he taught in Mysore.

ECE Professor Emeritus N. Narayana Rao spent his summer doing what he likes to do best--teaching. But Rao wasn’t teaching within the halls of Everitt. He was thousands of miles away in India.

Rao, the Edward C. Jordan Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering, worked in the ECE department for 42 years. Until his retirement in 2007, he directed ECE 329: Introduction to Electromagnetic Fields. In his career, Rao focused on more than simply teaching. He taught to show people the learning process.

“By teaching, I don’t mean just going to the classroom and teaching students,” Rao said. “My view of teaching is broader than that. When I write a textbook, not only the students here will read it, but people all over the world.”

Rao wrote textbooks throughout his career, aspiring to spread knowledge throughout the world. But beginning in 2000, Rao began going to India to connect with people face to face.

“It’s not a one-time thing that happened here,” Rao said. “It’s something which has been built up for many years, and which I will continue as long as I can.”

N. Narayana Rao
N. Narayana Rao

In India, there is extreme growth in the number of engineering colleges, and most of the growth is in undergraduate education. But with so many students, there are not enough qualified teachers. If poorly-qualified teachers teach students, the students will never learn properly. The students become poorly-qualified teachers, and the cycle continues. Rao has traditionally been able to spread his knowledge to students in India through his textbooks. But for the last two summers, Rao went to India to teach the teachers so they can learn and spread the knowledge to others.

This summer, Rao taught a total of 40 faculty from different parts of India in two groups, one at Hyderabad, the other at Mysore. His two-week course was the equivalent of a typical one-semester of ECE 329. Each day, Rao would spend between five and six hours teaching, using PowerPoint slides and textbooks. And by the end of the course, Rao hoped to calm the class' fear of Maxwell equations.

Rao used an approach that was introduced in ECE 329 (then EE 229) in 1974 and that worked successfully for more than 30 years.

“People are very scared about these equations because they look at the math and feel terrified," Rao said. "I tell them that by the end, or the middle of the course, you’re going to smile at them. You’re not going to feel terrified anymore. After a couple of days, I ask them, ‘Do you feel scared?’ and they say 'no.'”

Rao also travels to India to help build the reputation of the department. When Rao was a technical education student in India in the 1950s, he used textbooks written by Illinois faculty.

"That's how you get to know Illinois," Rao said.

By teaching in India, he hopes to continue the tradition set by the leaders of the ECE Department, Edward Jordan, William Everitt, and Mac Van Valkenburg, whom he calls the father, grandfather, and uncle, respectively, of the department.

“If you talk about building the reputation of this department, it’s like building a structure. Where do you start building the structure? The foundation,” Rao said. “If the foundation is not strong enough, it’s not going to be a good building. In that sense, getting to the undergraduates, not only here, but throughout the world, is like building that foundation.”

Rao plans to continue teaching in India and expanding his program.

“I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” Rao said. “Something that is fulfilling means you’re happy that you’re doing something good.”

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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