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2009 Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching: Thomas Mantei


Engineering professor Thomas Mantei has been chosen as this year’s recipient of one of UC’s highest teaching honors. Not bad for someone whose aptitude tests in high school said he should teach English literature.

Date: 5/21/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Lisa Ventre, photojournalist

UC ingot   Electrical Engineering’s Tom Mantei is an enigma. He doesn’t have a computer in his house. He does not have Internet access.

Tom Mantei's students say their classes with him are not to be missed.
Students in Prof. Tom Mantei's classes say that he actually makes them want to learn.

His students’ evaluations say that his instruction just feels like a conversation.

Former students thanked Mantei for mentoring them. “Really?” says Mantei. “I thought we were just talking.”

And he snuck in a lesson about the merits of overarching theory versus fact for a writer who was sent to do an interview.

Mantei has been selected multiple times as Outstanding Professor in Electrical Engineering by the University of Cincinnati chapter of Eta Kappa Nu. He has also received the Neil Wandmacher Excellence in Teaching Award given by the College of Engineering, as well as the Student Engineering Tribunal Outstanding Teaching Award.

Mantei's dedication (and experience) can be seen in his dog-eared notes that he still reviews before his classes.
Mantei's dedication (and experience) can be seen in his dog-eared notes that he still reviews before his classes.

And now he has received the A.B. “Dolly” Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching.

As with his teaching, he is understated in his reaction to this latest award.

“I go in year after year and I try — that’s all it is,” he says quietly.

From his evaluations and his career, it would seem that his “trying” has been fairly successful. Mantei earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962. He earned his master’s degree (1963) and PhD in electrical engineering (1967) from Stanford University.

But he didn’t always want to be a teacher.

Some principles are constant, but each batch of students requires a fresh perspective. Tom Mantei's students say he has it.
Some principles are constant, but each batch of students requires a fresh perspective. Tom Mantei's students say he has it.

“I was a late bloomer,” he says. It wasn’t until the age of about 40 that he decided to start teaching.

Mantei spent 10 years in France working at the University of Paris and the École Polytechnique, where he researched plasma technology.  He decided to come back to the United States in 1978, and he joined the University of Cincinnati in 1981 as an associate professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering. He also became the director of the Plasma Processing Laboratory. He is a senior member of the IEEE, and is a member of the American Vacuum Society, the American Solar Energy Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Mantei’s interests are varied, evolving with the times. His original work focused on plasma technology for semiconductor processing applications. However, nanotechnology is a rapidly growing field in which engineers and scientists control materials and devices at the atomic and molecular scales and so he expanded his horizons to the tiniest of devices. He is now the interim director of the Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (INST), a cross-college collaboration among the Colleges of Engineering, Medicine and the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences.

Mantei supports UC students' getting involved in presentations showing their research.
Mantei supports UC students' getting involved in presentations showing their research.

Each year the INST assists UC students who want to attend the Ohio Innovation Summit (originally the Ohio Nanosummit), which can be expensive for students. [link to http://www.ohioinnovationsummit.org/]

“We pay the fee for any student to attend, particularly if they want to present,” says Mantei. “It gives them a chance to see what’s around them in Ohio.”

Mantei is very supportive of his students, as reflected in the letters supporting his nomination and in the course evaluations that he has kept over his 20-plus years of teaching. The comments from the students on the course evaluations include such highlights as

  • “It is extremely rare in engineering to have a course taught so well.”
  • “This course has to be one of the best courses I’ve ever taken during all my years of school.”
  • “I liked everything about this professor … he’s the first professor I’ve ever had that had no flaws whatsoever in his teaching.”
  • “This instructor conveys knowledge to his students better than any of the other professors I have ever taken courses from.”
  • “He is an extraordinary teacher, has excellent communication skills, and is really concerned about his students.”

Mantei smiles when asked about his communication style.

“I tend to be sarcastic,” he says. “But it’s OK, I think — if they sense your heart is in the right place.”

He notes that most of the evaluations don’t address his knowledge of the subject matter or his technical expertise.


“Of course I will know the material, they seem to assume, so it comes down to how well you interact with the students,” Mantei says. Immediately he recalls the names of several students, their majors, their jobs at the time they were students, where they went when they graduated and what they’re doing now.

One student had been a bouncer in a bar and is now working a job in Silicon Valley after earning a graduate degree at Stanford. The student once said to Mantei, “You got me into Stanford.”

You got you into Stanford,” Mantei told him.

Mantei obviously made a lasting impression on these students’ careers. So what types of teachers impressed him?

“You have to ask yourself what you need to do so the students will learn.” Mantei says. “My best instructors were of two types: sometimes someone is so brilliant you just take it — but that’s rare.” He then recalls one professor of his who was a Nobel laureate at Stanford. “He did not want questions; he did not want to know you,” he says. “But it was like having God teach you.”

Professor Tom Mantei, recipient of the 2009 Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching
Professor Tom Mantei, recipient of the 2009 Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching

He pauses and smiles. “I am not at that level.”

Mantei says, “The very good instructors knew what they were talking about first of all. They often established a level of contact and a sense of immediacy. They cared a little bit about what they were teaching.”

He didn’t appreciate — and still doesn’t — those who teach to the material or the test.

“That is not learning; that is not teaching,” he says. “The question is — did it get absorbed by the student?”

What if Mantei had not decided to switch to teaching as a “late bloomer”?

“I would miss it,” he says. “All my life I have struggled to figure things out. Teaching is the only thing that’s ever come naturally to me.”