Gao wins AIAA Illinois Teacher of the Year Award
Gao, a member of Illinois' aerospace engineering faculty, is no stranger to teaching awards. In her three years at Illinois, she has received the 2015 Illinois College of Engineering Everitt Award for Teaching Excellence and was included on the Illinois List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students in 2014 and 2015.
“I love seeing how much the students learn and how much they grow from the start of a semester,” said Gao, who is also a Coordinated Science Laboratory assistant professor, and an affiliate faculty member of electrical and computer engineering. “It is very rewarding to see the spark in students’ eyes and see them change from the beginning of a class when they knew nothing about a topic to the end of a semester when they’re able to present a nice project on a difficult subject.”
Gao became a professor at Illinois in October 2012, after working as a research associate at Stanford University. She received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Tsinghua University in China in 2001 and 2003 and graduated from Stanford University in 2008 with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
During her time at Illinois, Gao has taught Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Navigation and Control (AE 483), Introduction to Global Positioning System (ECE 456/AE 456) and Advanced Global Navigation Satellite Systems (AE 598). While Gao easily admits to pushing students beyond their potential in the classroom, her teaching philosophy goes beyond just getting As.
“I want them all to be successful,” Gao said. “I really care about them and I find it part of my job to make them successful and when they are, I feel very rewarded. I want my teaching to prepare them for their jobs and the next steps in their lives. I care about the students’ individual successes in their lives.”
While Gao expects the best out of her students, she is also willing to put in equal work to show them she is invested. Not only does she learn every one of her students’ names, even for a class of 100 students (she carries around flash cards with their names and faces and works to memorize them throughout the semester), she uses external motivations, such as prizes sponsored by companies, to encourage excellence. Additionally, she leverages industry connections to help place students in internships and writes many references letters for graduate schools and new jobs.
Her students recognize these efforts and describe her as having “an optimistic personality and a ‘glass half full’ approach to problem solving,” as AIAA Illinois Chapter Student President Clayton Summers said during the award ceremony. He added that her students feel she “sincerely cares about them through placing priority on learning course material and individual student success” and by “learning students’ names and interacting with them throughout class, [which] makes her feel approachable and makes a lasting impression on everyone she teaches.”
Gao acknowledges she still has a lot to learn in terms of teaching, but she’s thankful for the encouragement an award like this brings and hearing success stories from former students. She also appreciates that the Illinois College of Engineering emphasizes teaching and that she has many role models who she can continue to learn from at Illinois.
“This award means a lot to me because I have been trying a lot of new things in my classes, especially in AE 483, and I wasn’t sure if the students would like or appreciate it,” she said. “I’m experimenting with different methods to capture their optimum learning moments. I want to push the students to their limits to see how hard they can work and how high they can go beyond their potential.”