Dr. Garrett Love instructs from behind a lightboard.
A brown wizard’s robe hangs haphazardly on a coat rack in Dr. Garrett Love’s office on the ground floor of the Educational Technology Center at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. More than anything else in the space — more than the small cardboard rocket lying lengthwise across an open toolbox, or the clear storage bins spilling over with bits and pieces of gadgets stuffed inside, or the programming and engineering reference books stacked on shelves — it tells the truest tale of his approach to teaching engineering.
“I put that robe on at the beginning of each year,” he says, “and I always ask my students, ‘why do we do science?’ We do science so we can understand, so we can then predict. But engineering,” and now his eyes wrinkle at the corners to indicate the smile behind his unicorn-branded COVID mask, “is cooler because we do, like, the wizards thing.”
The wizards thing?
Love, who in addition to teaching engineering is also the chair of NCSSM-Durham’s Engineering and Computer Science department, gathers his hands to suggest something round. “Crystal ball? That’s science.” Now, with one hand, he grips another imaginary object and brandishes it before him. “Wand? That’s engineering. With engineering, we get to control the future. We take patterns that science has identified, use those to create something that we expect to do something — and then we make it happen.”
The wizards thing. And it’s that magic in the NCSSM-Online and distance learning classrooms where Love teaches that has earned him the 2021 NC TECH Educator of the Year award.
The award from the Raleigh-based non-profit trade association, with more than 600 North Carolina member companies that employ more than 200,000, fosters the continued development of North Carolina’s tech industry.
Dr. Joe LoBuglio, NCSSM’s Dean of Engineering and Computer Science, nominated Love. “Dr. Love is an amazing educator,” LoBuglio says. “He has an incredible ability to use technology to create learning experiences that deepen students’ understanding of the fields he teaches. He’s also done so much to help us expand the number of students we can reach through our Online and Open Enrollment programs. I truly am excited to be able to celebrate his accomplishments.”
“This is a very competitive education technology award process, and Dr. Love is the ideal educator to be recognized as this year’s winner,” agreed Dr. Katie O’Connor, NCSSM’s Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs. “He creates and seamlessly integrates technology so all learners have equal access to the instruction, content, discussion, course materials and activities.”
What they really mean is that Love is so good at his work that, from the outside looking in it can, indeed, appear a bit like wand waving.
From Massachusetts to the Mississippi
As the oldest of seven children, Love spent a good portion of his youth in New Hampshire helping his parents corral his siblings, teaching them how to play sports, or helping them with their homework. That innate ability to teach, his youthful curiosity about the physical world around him, and a later desire to do something that impacted that world in significant and obvious ways, eventually led him to an undergraduate degree in civil and environmental engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then he went south.
The Mississippi River is a long way from Cambridge, MA. But Love found himself on its banks, after graduating, a young Teach for America member teaching high school pre-algebra in the delta town of Helena, AR. For three years he taught there, encouraging his students to make the best of their own abilities. For those interested in expanding their range of possibilities, he supported their explorations of a potential life beyond the northern reaches of the Delta.
From studios on NCSSM’s Durham campus, Dr. Love reaches students throughout North Carolina.
One evening, in what would be his final year in Helena, Love found himself atop a levee just blocks from his apartment, watching as the flooding Mississippi raced by. The torrent made him wonder: just how much water is that? It was a complicated calculation just beyond the bounds of the abilities his undergraduate degree had given him. With another class or two, he was certain, he would be able to stand right there as the water charged past and run the numbers in his head.
And then they began to resonate, the messages he had been sharing with his students: go as far as you can, be courageous enough to consider — if you want — what is beyond your immediate horizon.
“That’s when I realized that I hadn’t gone yet to the depth of what I could study,” Love says. “I was telling my students to use education to get them to where they wanted to be, but I suddenly realized I hadn’t fully done that yet, myself.”
A gift from Love’s mother around this same time provided the final nudge he needed to expand upon his own life. The 1987 book Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick introduced chaos theory to the general reading public for the first time. To Love, the finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize was a “cool way” of presenting a “new way” of mathematics.
“The book just made me sort of say, ‘You know something, I think I want to go into academia because I’ve been trying to work in a field that’s really cool, but what I can really do is I can now study whatever the heck I want and teach it.’ ”
Love found the graduate program he wanted at Duke University, where he went on to earn a master’s and a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering. He’s quick to point out, however, that his expertise is on the computational and teaching side.
“I consider myself a teacher and a computational scientist with degrees in civil engineering,” he says. “I’ve never been a ‘real’ engineer. I’m an academic engineer. I’m not especially good at actually building things, but I can take things in the real world and turn them into computational items and make the computer tell me everything about it.”
Practice what you preach
When Love became a tenured professor at North Carolina Central University, his early grad school dream had been achieved. But as the years passed, an unexpected ache to return to the high school classroom set in. Teaching at a university was great, but a tenured professorship also required significant research and regular publication in scholarly journals. Love was beginning to understand that his interest in conducting research had pretty much been satisfied with the completion of a Ph.D. Publishing presented its own demands. Slowly, Love was inching away from what he loved most — teaching.
In 2015, Love jumped on the chance to join NCSSM’s distance education division as an instructor. He was already familiar with the school, having taught on the side an Honors Aerospace class through the school’s Interactive Videoconferencing (now called Open Enrollment) platform. Too, while at NCCU, he had mentored a Science and Mathematics student through NCSSM’s Summer Mentorship program.
In addition to distance learning courses, Dr. Love also teaches in NCSSM’s summer programs.
Six years on, Love considers teaching at NCSSM as “the best high school job in the state and among the best high school jobs in the country.”
And he’s still constantly amazed by the talent and drive of NCSSM students, which he likens in many ways to college students in master’s programs. “Every student here, every student, is an inspired student,” he says. “They are here because they want to be. And they are here because they felt inspired to be here. And they’re dedicated. It’s like a Hogwarts.”
Driving Love in the classroom is a desire to share his enthusiasm for the moment when something clicks, both with the project at hand and in the minds of those working on it. He points to a recent classroom experience where he challenged students to use calculations to create a mobile (such as the spidery sculptures that hover above infants’ cribs) that, Love points out, can — through correct calculations — already be perfectly balanced before it is ever lifted into the air.
“That moment of, ‘I made it do that’ is just, like, that’s addictive,” Love says.
Most encouraging, Love continues, is that the gap between not understanding a concept and having a grasp of it that opens one’s mind to a greater understanding of the world is often quite small. In another recent class experiment, students held a small balsa wood glider above the floor, then dropped it. Instead of dropping straight down, it sailed away at an angle before coming to a less jarring rest on the floor. No one truly understood why.
After a simple lesson on weight distribution and aerodynamics, the students suddenly got it. With that knowledge in hand, they were then able to manipulate the glider so that it flew in a different manner. In just a few moments, they understood the physical world around them significantly better than they had before.
“That’s something I really try to help my students find, that moment when they realize, ‘I have [some] control of the world.’ There is a wizardry to that. That’s the power,” he says. “With your mind”– and here he makes a sound that is understood to be wizardly — “you are now making things happen that you couldn’t have made happen a few minutes ago.”
All you need is a little magic
Though it’s affirming for Love to receive the public pat on the back with the educator of the year award, he’s most excited about how that personal recognition of his efforts might ultimately benefit students. Already he has fielded an inquiry from a major tech player on the global stage about collaborating on classroom instruction.
What he really wants is to use this recognition to advocate for access for all kids, free from any constraints posed by geography or financial insecurity.
“I want to say to the larger tech community that we need to reach out now and make sure these kids have as much access to as many things as possible,” he says. “We’re in the information age. There’s no reason any kid shouldn’t be able to have access to all of the things they can think about and dream about.”
That’s a tremendous challenge, but not insurmountable. It might require a bit more wizardry and wand-waving. But as long as folks like Love continue to weave their own special magic, what can be, one day will be.