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Metcalf Winner J. Gregory McDaniel

ENG professor takes lessons from tree frogs and brake squeals

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Students who learn from J. Gregory McDaniel come away with an unusually broad sense of the applications of engineering: McDaniel’s research has ranged from automotive brake squeal to the hatching behavior of red-eyed tree frogs, two dissimilar subjects that are united, in his mind, by mechanical vibrations and acoustics. Baiting his line with such diverse lures to reel in students’ attention — being a “student of the student,” he calls it — has brought McDaniel, an associate professor at the College of Engineering, this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s highest teaching honor.

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“I was surprised and honored beyond words when I was notified,” says McDaniel, adding that winning such an honor for doing what he loves “is one of the greatest feelings on earth.”

“I teach in a discipline that has historically been short on passion and creativity,” McDaniel wrote in a statement of teaching philosophy that he submitted to the Metcalf awards committee. “My mission in life is to change that path as much as I can, one student at a time.”

Even those students who are not surprised by McDaniel’s deep interest in vibration are surprised by its depth: McDaniel wrote that vibration “is the last thing I think about before I go to sleep and the first thing that I think about when I wake up.”

One student recalled the class laughing at that statement when he first told them, but the humor soon morphed into inspiration. “I have realized throughout the semester that he was probably completely serious,” the student wrote in his teacher evaluation. “It is great to have a professor who is so excited about a subject!”

Translating his expertise into activism, McDaniel cofounded BU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which last summer, with his assistance, designed clean-water facilities and other necessities for a village in Peru.

It was McDaniel who recognized the innate math ability of Peter Wal, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” young refugees from that nation’s brutal civil war. Soldiers destroyed Wal’s village in 1987, when he was seven, forcing him to run for his life, through countries and refugee camps. After he resettled in the United States and won a prep school scholarship, McDaniel tutored Wal and helped him make it to college to study engineering.

The winners of this year’s Metcalf Awards and the Metcalf Cup and Prize— the University’s highest teaching honors — were announced at theannual Senior Breakfast, on April 30, and will be presented atCommencement, on Sunday, May 16.

The honors were created in 1973 with a gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a former faculty member and longtime chairman of the Board of Trustees. The Cup winner receives $10,000, the Award winners $5,000 each. A committee chooses the winners based on nominees’ statements of teaching philosophy, letters of support from colleagues and students, and committee members’ in-class observations of the teachers.

McDaniel earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Florida and a master’s and Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has taught at BU since 1993.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu. Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @amlaskow.

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