Dedication to Teaching

August 1, 2008

Gavin: lauded for his wit and enthusiasm.


Les Todd

Four years ago, Henri Gavin invited his oldest son, then five, to sit in on one of his engineering lectures. The boy was, of course, too young to understand the subject of the lecture and spent most of the class period squirming in the front row. But he had a secret: His father had briefed him in advance on the solution to a particularly difficult problem.

At the appointed moment, Gavin presented the class with the problem. And as his students, mostly sophomores and juniors, looked on in shock, the boy walked to the board and scribbled the solution.

"He totally worked it," Gavin recalls. "The students fell out of their chairs."

In subsequent semesters, he has repeated the trick. Though it has lost some of its shock value as the story is passed from one class to the next, it still earns raves. And, truth be told, it's just one of many methods that Gavin, winner of this year's Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award (ADUTA), has used to engage his students.

Gavin, W. H. Gardner Jr. Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering, came to Duke in 1995 after receiving a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Princeton University and his master's and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. The 2006 winner of the Pratt School of Engineering's Klein Family Distinguished Teaching Award, he currently teaches two undergraduate courses, "Introduction to Solid Mechanics" and "Structural Design and Optimization."

In a letter nominating him for the ADUTA, one student wrote of Gavin's uncommon dedication to teaching and mentoring students. After being asked a question about water treatment in class, the student reported, Gavin "spent the rest of the day talking with other faculty members about the basics of the problem and then created an entirely new MATLAB optimization lab based on the concept." MATLAB is a computer program that engineers often use to explore and solve diverse problems.

Gavin, the student continued, "e-mailed us around 4 a.m. to update us on his progress, and by the next week, incorporated it into the class as an assignment so that we could better understand something we were interested in."

Likewise, when a faculty adviser to Duke Engineers Without Borders backed out of a planned trip to Uganda in 2006 at the last minute, Gavin, despite having a wife and two young children, enthusiastically volunteered to replace him. On the trip, as in the classroom, Gavin "was a master at guiding us to solutions with good questions and providing information when it was needed," his nominator wrote.

Through his dynamic teaching, Gavin has garnered popularity and fame that extend well beyond the classroom. For the past few years, students have maintained a Facebook group dedicated to chronicling his wit, deeds, and MATLAB proficiency.

In addition to teaching, Gavin directs the university's Structural Dynamics and Seismic Response Control Laboratory, where he studies risk and uncertainty as they apply to natural hazards like earthquakes. He seeks to develop technology that will keep "critical infrastructure systems"—government and corporate data centers in addition to emergency response and recovery systems—secure in the event of a natural disaster. Even here, he likes to work with undergraduates completing independent-study projects.

The award will be presented to Gavin during Founders' Day ceremonies on October 5. It includes a $5,000 stipend and $1,000 for Duke Libraries to purchase materials recommended by the recipient.