Fall-Winter 2014 Szydlowski

  • Professor Szydlowski writing on a glass wall with students looking on

    Szydlowski drawing on his strengths

A lifetime of unique experiences has shaped an approach to teaching that makes MME associate professor Wieslaw Szydlowski and his classes very much in demand.
In recent years, the College of Engineering has experienced impressive growth – with enrollment numbers climbing and expanding the reach of the college.

But among the fundamental missions of the college, as outlined by Dean Timothy Wei, are excellence in undergraduate education and “serving students, the state, and society as a whole.”

This issue shines a spotlight on some of the many faculty members who are creating and enhancing student experiences.

Department chairs were asked to suggest faculty who have unusual impacts on their students. We expected to be regaled with tales of teachers who have popular classes or unusual approaches to teaching, who present unique research opportunities for students and who impart valuable knowledge with their work outside the classroom.

The responses were all that and more. However, the response from Jeff Shield, department chair of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME), stood out despite being only nine words:

“Professor Szydlowski may be the most interesting man alive.”

Becoming somewhat cynical after three decades of working for newspapers, I considered it a challenge to meet this man and find something to make Dr. Shield’s assertion stand up.

Only a few minutes after knocking on the door to his Nebraska Hall office, Wieslaw Szydlowski had me on the edge of my seat, weaving tales seemingly straight out of a Hollywood producer’s office:

  • Growing up in Poland and narrowly escaping death during World War II when a Soviet bomb destroyed his childhood home,
  • Longing to become an artist and turning to engineering only after having that dream dashed,
  • Becoming one of Poland’s first champion bodybuilders,
  • Living through cold-war intrigue that could rival the suspense on TV’s “The Americans,”
  • Enduring plenty of personal and professional struggles, and
  • Articulating how these experiences have shaped his approach to teaching.

  • After hours of him talking and me mostly listening, the 77-year-old associate professor sighed, leaned back in his chair, slid his bifocals off his nose and rubbed his forehead.

    “I don’t know why anyone would want to write about me,” he said. “I’m almost 50 years in teaching. I’m not that interesting. I don’t do anything unusual.”

    * * *

    There’s no doubt that Szydlowski teaches some of the most popular classes among MME students, but this is not a recent development. From his start as a teaching assistant at Technical University of Warsaw, Szydlowski has been well-liked.

    “To do anything well you have to have many things that happen. You must have a model and you know what a good teacher looks like. I was very lucky. My role model was my professor from the university in Poland,” Szydlowski said.

    Szydlowski was looking for a graduate degree and accepted the professor’s offer of employment for the 6½-year master’s program in aeronautical engineering. During that time Szydlowski learned the discipline of preparation he carries through to this day.

    “That was a very tough thing for me because he requested for me to be at every lecture that he gives so I would know what he would talk about and I could answer students’ questions. What was worse, I had to take all the quizzes and examinations with the students,” Szydlowski said.

    “I was never working harder on the material and on statistics and at the same time I would watch how he teaches and I thought ‘This is really wonderful. He prepares it so well.’ He would tell me, ‘You know, I don’t come to the class and I know everything. For every hour I spend in the class for a lecture, I spend four or five hours before in preparation.’ ”

    In these classes, Szydlowski developed a predilection for creating the materials for classes he teaches – this time, though, out of necessity.

    “When I was a student he was teaching the theory of machines and mechanisms and I had my notes, we didn’t have any books at that time. It was the 1950s, it was aeronautical engineering and there were no books on the design of engines,” Szydlowski said.

    “I understood everything, even though I didn’t take any notes because I knew everything he said. Then it came time for the test and I saw that I didn’t have anything to know what he was talking about.”

    * * *

    Though in the middle of a communist nation in the 1970s, the students at Technical University exercised a form of Western democracy by voting for the best teachers on campus. In both of the last two years before he first came to the United States, Szydlowski was the clear winner.

    The popular teacher also caught the eye of a visiting engineering professor from the University of Nebraska – J.R. Baumgarten, who while working in Poland on a National Science Foundation grant in 1975, suggested that Szydlowski come to Lincoln to teach the classes Baumgarten would be missing.

    “I was finishing my Ph.D. at the time and I didn’t want to go because I think I don’t speak English very well,” Szydlowski said. “In Poland, only communists were traveling to the West. I didn’t want to, but Prof. Baumgarten’s wife was pushing on my wife that this is really an opportunity of lifestyle.

    “Even though it was not an attractive thing to be a professor in 1975, the money was still very good for me. For one semester here, I could earn enough to go back to Poland and buy a large lot of land and a house and still have some for a car. It convinced me that this, it is a material thing but it won’t be repeated.”

    Szydlowski came for the fall semester of 1975 and, by his own admission, “performed well.” When his visa expired and it came time to leave for Poland, Nebraska engineering students did their best to keep “Dr. Syd” in Lincoln.

    “The students, they asked Prof. (Bob) Peters (the mechanical engineering chair) if they could re-invite me, and he invited me again,” Szydlowski said. “I had terrible problems with immigration. They didn’t want to give me a green card. The students started collecting signatures, I didn’t even know about it then, that they wanted me to stay. They collected 500 signatures and immigration didn’t want them. So, I had to leave.”

    * * *

    Szydlowski returned to UNL in 1981, and his appointment was not without more politically charged drama.

    The night before leaving Poland, Szydlowski was contacted by a member of the Polish secret police, who urgently pressed for a meeting.

    “He said he has an order to talk to me before I go, so we decided to meet at a café,” Szydlowski said. “It was almost like in a movie – rainy, dark, 11 o’clock at night and the café was the one place open for blocks.

    “I was nervous that he would tell me I cannot go. But, he said he only came to warn me that the Americans would try to make me a spy and that they had many cases of people changing their mind about systems and come back and they’re spies,” Szydlowski said. “I said I would never do this. I prefer a quiet life. He said, ‘When you come back, I will talk to you again.’ I never saw him again.”

    A few years later, Szydlowski received a series of letters from Poland, asking him to procure a list of electronic parts that would somehow be smuggled out of the U.S. An FBI agent visited Szydlowski in the next couple of days and asked if he had been contacted by anyone from Poland. Szydlowski denied knowing anything.

    Worried about being arrested, Szydlowski told Peters what had happened. He heeded his chair’s advice and told the FBI about the letters.

    The next day, the Polish government told Szydlowski he was to return home immediately. It was something he wasn’t certain he could bring himself to do. The timing turned out to be serendipitous.

    “I decided that I would stay here as long as I could and see. It looked like communism was collapsing, it was in a very sickly state, and I knew that after three years here, maybe you can get permission to stay,” Szydlowski said. “Immigration told me to call the Polish consulate and ask them to let me stay. I didn’t know that there was a purge of all the embassy people. They were completely new. I called and the guy said he would send me an answer tomorrow. I got permission to stay here and I got my green card and things were going better.”

    * * *

    Professor Shield counts himself one of Szydlowski’s legion of fans, and he said enrollment numbers are a good way to measure the esteem that students have for “Dr. Syd.”

    “As far as student evaluations go, he’s always one of the highest-rated teachers we have,” Shield said. “He’s always been popular with the students because he’s an effective teacher.

    “The last time it came around (in fall of 2008), the rumor among the students was that he was taking the buyout and retiring and that the spring would be his last semester,” Shield said. “Usually our elective classes have enrollments of about 20 students. He had over 40 in his elective class that spring because all the students thought it was the last chance to take a class from Syd.”

    >Because he no longer does research, Szydlowski has taken on a large teaching workload. This past fall, he taught six sections of classes, one of the heaviest workloads among UNL engineering faculty.

    “He’s been teaching a kinematics lab forever. When a lot of faculty who are in charge of the lab will use TAs to cover the sections, he teaches the sections,” Shield said. “His contact hours in a week with students have got to be close to 20 hours a week, which is huge for a faculty member. And that doesn’t count office hours, that’s in the classroom or the lab.”

    Szydlowski acknowledges the amount of teaching work he does is a heavy load and said his family has said he should cut back. Though he remains in excellent physical condition – working out daily with weights, just as he did a half century ago when he was a champion bodybuilder, and refraining from smoking and drinking, Szydlowski enjoys the grind of teaching, especially with the sometimes repetitive task of grading tests and papers. As with so much else he does, Szydlowski prefers not to delegate this responsibility.

    “My son in Poland, he wants me to retire because he feels I’m working too much,” Szydlowski said. “The weekends, it’s non-stop. I have 120 students and I grade everything. When I had a TA doing the grading, he was missing (students’) errors. So on Saturday, I’m doing that, and it’s a very boring job. You are doing the same thing 60 times.

    “Sometimes I put them in stacks of three, three, three,” Szydlowski said, leaning over his desk and using his hands to show how he sorts papers. “I take three and listen to music. Take three and have a cup of coffee …”

    * * *

    The rest of his work outside the classroom is spent preparing for lectures. That includes spending hours organizing each daily lecture, from deciding what material to cover to which stories to tell to drive his points home.

    “They call me a storyteller, but I do it with a purpose,” Szydlowski said. “Nothing helps better than the stories you tell. Some may say it’s a cheap way to gain popularity, but these stories cannot be stories about just anything. They must have a moral, a point that pertains to the subject that you teach.”

    Some of those stories are about times Szydlowski’s projects didn’t succeed. Those are even more effective and popular with his students.

    >“Especially when you tell them about somebody who did something wrong,” he said. “Immediately, their ears are up.”

    One, from his days in Poland, involves being asked to design a platform lift to help workers wash the windows on the outside of buildings high enough that hoses wouldn’t reach. Szydlowski’s team designed a machine with wheels to make it portable and a scissor-like linkage on parallel sides with a crank that would allow workers to raise the platform while they were standing on it.

    “We made it like engineers do, planned everything, calculated everything – forces, load, everything. They signed and said that they are happy,” Szydlowski said. “Two days later, they said ‘take it back, nobody wants to work on it.’ We couldn’t understand what happened, so they said come and see what happens.”

    When Szydlowski and his team used the lift, they discovered a problem they hadn’t imagined possible.

    “We took a bucket of water and moved from the middle to one of the sides, and suddenly the whole thing jumped,” Szydlowski said. “We didn’t know at that time what we have since learned about ergonomics: that if this platform performs amplitudes of vibration or changes position larger than one inch in any direction, the window washer has a fear that it will collapse. We had to take it back and make different sleeves and cancel the clearances.”

    “This illustrates to the students that even engineers aren’t always right,” Szydlowski said. “We don’t always look at it from every perspective we should.”

    >* * *

    And while Szydlowski certainly has plenty of stories to tell his students, it’s the materials he utilizes in his classes that set him apart from many of his teaching colleagues and create lasting and endearing relationships with his students.

    Instead of relying solely on mass-produced textbooks, Szydlowski has prepared nearly all of the instructive materials for the 10 different courses he has been called to teach. For each class, there is a huge, three-ring binder filled with hundreds of sheets of paper. These sheets are arranged much like a standard textbook, with chapters, text and subtitles and replete with his custom, hand-drawn illustrations.

    What else would one expect from a child who was drawn to replicating with pencil the bold works of Polish patriotic painter Artur Grottger? If not for a twist of fate, Szydlowski might have followed in his idol’s footsteps.

    “My mother wanted me to be an artist, a painter. I have a natural gift for it,” Szydlowski said. “When I was in high school, I was preparing to apply for the Academy of Fine Arts, then suddenly I realized that I have color blindness that is so delicate between the red and the green.

    “They give you paints and you have to show how they harmonically connect, and this is what I was afraid I would not be able to do.”

    At home, Szydlowski still paints. He’s created portraits of his father-in-law – from an old photograph – and of other family members. His new artistic joy is in photography, but it isn’t easy finding the time.

    “I have a wife and son, and it is difficult to abandon university because I’m teaching non-stop. Someday, perhaps I will be retired and, then, I will have the time.”

    When it comes to teaching, however, Szydlowski has always found the time to illustrate his work. Some of it comes from a desire to use his talents, but some is born out of his belief that technological advances don’t always improve the educational experience.

    >“Sometimes, the people who make textbooks give you transparencies and PowerPoint, and the students think because the teacher shows parts from the book they don’t have to worry about other things. It’s not an improvement,” he said. “People who use these things don’t know how to show them. Sometimes they go, ‘Click, click, click, click’ through the first ones you see, and then ‘click, click, click, click’ to the end. The students, they don’t take notes because the image lasts a very short time on the screen.

    “When I draw on the screen or on the board at the front of the room, they see the progression and they have time to draw it themselves and they understand much better.”

    * * *

    There are a few engineering books on the shelves of his offices at UNL and at home, but most of the drawers in both locations contain a virtual library of his more than 50 years of teaching experience. Among those files are thousands of transparencies he has created for use on overhead projectors.

    Szydlowski said he has found this personalization of the materials, which has required tens of thousands of hours of work, has had a lasting impression on those he teaches

    The materials are so thorough, they remain in demand with former students, many of whom have contacted Szydlowski asking for copies or for permission to share their college materials with professional colleagues.

    “These are things that I’ve gathered for me, for my use,” Szydlowski said. “But students are usually very interested in keeping them. With textbooks, students sell them when they graduate, but this they keep. It’s theirs as well as mine. Sometimes, they lose them over time and they call because they have to design something and ask if I can recommend a good book. I would recommend a book, but this is always at their disposal.”

    * * *

    The connection between the teacher and his former students isn’t confined to the classroom or the lab. Szydlowski said the most gratifying part of his 30-plus years at UNL is not the many teaching awards and honors he has received; rather, it is hearing how much his classes have meant to his students.

    “Such is the life of an instructor – usually there is nothing tangible to show the effect of your work, but I know that the students are somewhere and they function very well and their life is happy,” Szydlowski said.

    “Sometimes, I will encounter somebody in Super Saver, who says, ‘Dr. Syd, do you remember me?’ Sometimes I remember, sometimes no because they are older and they have kids themselves. There is one guy, I forgot about him until one year at Christmas he sends me a package from the United Kingdom. He said he thinks about how much my classes have helped him since he graduated and sent me a pudding. I haven’t seen him in 15 years, but every Christmas the pudding is here.”

    Those connections are part of the reason Szydlowski keeps teaching and keeps himself in excellent condition. The septuagenarian has a daily exercise regimen that includes lifting weights, something he’s done since his bodybuilding days, and he doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol.

    That vibrancy resonates with his students.

    “Even when he was in his 60s, students would come up after he graded a test and ask if he could give them a few more points or a better grade,” Shield said. “So he would say, ‘If you could beat me arm wrestling, I’ll give you the points.’

    “They never beat him.”

    * * *

    When the opportunity to take another offered university buyout was presented, Szydlowski gave serious thought to retiring. But the thought of not being able to interact with students proved to be the deciding factor in his decision to stay.

    “Well, I’m coming to the dusk of my professional life, but I don’t want to make that choice,” Szydlowski said. “There was a big opportunity and I could have half my salary for not working. I cannot make that decision. I belong to this environment. This is my identity. This is something I like, something I feel that is contributing to other people.”

    Instead of retirement, Szydlowski is carrying another daunting load of classes for the spring and summer semesters.

    Shield said he’s thankful that Szydlowski stayed on and grateful he will be on the faculty for the foreseeable future.

    “All I can say is, it will be difficult to replace him. He teaches fundamental mechanical engineering classes and the basics that are critical to being a mechanical engineer,” Shield said. “He’s a great person, so unassuming. He said, ‘I hope I don’t disappoint you by not retiring.” I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ He’s a treasure and a resource that we really appreciate having around.”

    Szydlowski, too, appreciates the opportunity to keep teaching.

    “In Poland, there’s a curse, ‘May you teach other people’s children,’” he said. “For me, I don’t see teaching as a curse. I feel that being with young people gives you that vitality that helps you to live longer because you feel younger.”