“Beyond Awesome”: Michael Knox Receives 2011 Distinguished Teacher Award

If course evaluations were an extreme sport, those written for Michael Knox, an industry associate professor at NYU-Polytechnic’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), would rank up there with the most thrilling. “Excellent professor,” “perfect class” and “beyond awesome” are just some of the comments Knox’s students offered after a semester of his instruction.

And the professor’s courses aren’t easy. His evaluations regularly acknowledge the rigor his classes demand—“your courses are always tough,” wrote one student; “The tests were hard and the labs were long,” wrote another. But, in the end, students applaud his instruction, and their praise reveals why Knox is the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Teacher Award.

“It was such an honor,” Knox said about receiving the Jacobs Excellence in Education Award, which comes with a $10,000 cash prize and was established by Dr. Joseph J. Jacobs.  Demonstrating the care for which he’s known, Knox underscores the importance of hearing from his students. “It’s that constant feedback that helps you improve [as an instructor],” he says. “Next semester is what’s in the back of your mind.”

That dedication to enriching the classroom experience has a tangible counterpart as well. In his nominating letter to the awarding committee, Jonathan Chao, head of the ECE department, noted his colleague’s efforts “to improve the quality and operation of our teaching and research laboratories.” Knox continues to enhance the capability in his wireless lab with the recent addition of two software radio platforms and a Satimo Starlab antenna test system using funds from a recent $600,000 grant awarded by the National Science Foundation. He also secured equipment donations from InterDigital Corporation and other donors for software tools that help NYU-Poly students create design projects attractive to future employers.

“I just landed a job as a test engineer at BGA Technology,” Srinivas Sridhar ’10, BS Electrical Engineering, wrote in the nominating letter. “Getting this job had a lot to do with my senior design project. Thank you for teaching me everything that I need to know.”

A cherished advisor to his students, Knox has his own mentors at NYU-Poly: Frank Cassara, director of NYU-Poly’s Long Island campus, and Peter Voltz, an associate professor in the ECE department. Now colleagues of his, the two once taught Knox, who received his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees from the Institute. Describing them as role models, Knox says they offered guidance when he first began teaching as an adjunct faculty member at NYU-Poly in 1996. He became an industry professor in 2006 after stints at Lockheed Martin, Agilent Technologies and Symbol Technologies and also starting several companies of his own. Knox believes his long tenure at the Institute as both a student and instructor has contributed greatly to his success.

“As an alumni of Poly, I remember where the students are at, having gone through the system myself,” Knox says. “I’m able to give anecdotes from my own experiences to the students.”

He offered one at the commencement ceremonies in May. Addressing the graduates, Knox described how, on his first day working as a young engineer, he saw a sign that divided the world into three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who say, “What happened?” Receiving loud cheers, he told his audience, “The fact that you’re here today says you’re the ones that make things happen.” The same could be said of Dr. Michael Knox.