September 28, 2023

Keys To Learning: How One Purdue Professor Is Teaching First-Year Engineers To Re-Train Their Brains

Mike Melloch, professor of electrical and computer engineering, received the Class of 1922 Outstanding Innovation in Helping Students Learn Award.
Professor Mike Melloch, dressed in jeans and a yellow striped polo, sits at a table just outside his office in the electrical engineering building. Behind his is a bookshelf and a view into his office where there is a desk and bulletin board.
Professor Mike Melloch sits for a picture outside his office in the Max W and Maileen Brown Family Hall of Electrical Engineering building

Beyond the Book of Great Teachers recognition, Purdue honored several other instructors with a variety of awards. Mike Melloch, professor of electrical and computer engineering, received the Class of 1922 Outstanding Innovation in Helping Students Learn Award.

Melloch is piloting two sections of a one-credit course called “The Keys to Learning: Unlocking the Brain’s Potential.” Geared toward engineering students in their first semester, ENGR 103 delves into the best study practices, the psychological aspects of being a successful learner, and the underlying factors that can help brains work at peak efficiency.

“So many students never learned how to learn,” says Melloch, noting how many students struggle their first semester because what worked in high school no longer works in the college setting. “Eventually, they hit failure. Things become difficult, and there are students who give up. In this class, we talk about how the brain works, the importance of sleep, and the role exercise and nutrition play in the health of the brain. We also talk about how the brain is always changing, and in 20 years, you can be a totally different person than you are today.”

Melloch has always been passionate about teaching but says he developed a stronger sense of responsibility when his daughter started attending Purdue in 2006. When he started considering each of his students as someone else’s child, the call to improve his teaching felt more urgent. Melloch started reading books on learning and incorporating insights into his engineering courses. From there, his interest in learning just kept growing.

“It got to the point where I would spend a few minutes at the end of every class talking about some of these concepts, and students started telling me how helpful that was,” Melloch recalls. “They were doing better in their other courses after following some of this advice.”

Fast forward to 2023, when each of the students in Melloch’s class can speak to the impact of having their high school education disrupted by a global pandemic.

“I struggled in high school and made some mistakes, and I’m still making mistakes, that’s for sure,” says Chakravarthy Mallarapu, who hopes to study aerospace engineering. “One thing I’ve taken away from this class is the importance of being an active learner and striving to grasp the material, which sometimes means not listening to music when you’re studying or not moving on from the material until you really understand it.”

Charles Persons, also a first-year engineering student, believes what makes the class so valuable is that the learning is applicable in daily life.

“We’ve examined both abstract and practical ways the brain learns, how we are unique as opposed to other animals and other mammals, and how we can use the function of the brain to our advantage and optimize our learning,” Persons shares. “Everyone can benefit from learning about themselves, and there’s no better a time to work on understanding your brain and your learning than in your college career.”

Matthew Calvo, another student in Melloch’s course, believes the subject matter is applicable for all majors at all grade levels, but adds that the content is particularly salient for students at the beginning of their Purdue career.

“I want to go into aerospace engineering, and there is a lot of math and complex science behind it. While there are a lot of professors who are extremely knowledgeable in physics and math, not every professor can help students comprehend the material,” Calvo says. “But that’s been Professor Melloch from day one – he told us this will be a life-changing course, and I believe him.”

Source: Purdue celebrates Teaching Excellence, inducts 38 instructors into Book of Great Teachers