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What's Their Secret

By Jennifer Shen     9/28/11 7:00pm

Rumored to perform the best bike tricks no other professor can do, James McLurkin, an associate professor at the Computer Science department, is best known for his cool little robots, being funny and  his easygoing personality.

McLurkin received his bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another master's from the University of California, Berkeley. Having taught at M.I.T. and the University of Washington, McLurkin said what drew him to Rice was the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

"The Design Kitchen is a world-class facility, but what makes it unique is that it is geared towards enhancing the undergraduate experience," McLurkin said. "In fact, I was asked to come up with a course in OEDK that would utilize its resources, and I wouldn't teach ENGI 128 anywhere else."



This year marks McLurkin's second year of teaching ENGI 128: Introduction to Engineering Systems, a course specifically designed to introduce freshmen to different aspects of engineering.

For ENGI 128, McLurkin utilizes a series of unconventional methods to get students involved and motivated. He gives out prizes to the winners of the design challenges, including gift cards to the Chocolate Bar and Harry Potter lego sets. In order to keep track of exactly how often each student participates, McLurkin gives a poker chip to the student who asks or answers a question, counts them at the end of the semester, and gives participation grades accordingly.

McLurkin said he loves answering students' questions.

"I enjoy the most when the students ‘get it,'" McLurkin said. "When you can see the questions they have had for the past 10 years about some engineering systems [are answered]."

McLurkin said even though it was difficult for him to handle the diversity of students' previous experiences in different types of engineering, he wanted everyone  to be up to speed and challenged; at the same time, he hopes that this class can show students how much fun engineering is.

"[Engineering] is hard and a lot of work and complicated," McLurkin said. "But it's fun ... [and] we learn how to manage that complexity."

In his spare time, McLurkin has enjoyed many pastimes.

"I used to play video games, I used to ride my motorcycle and bicycle, I used to play with my little trains ... I used to sleep," McLurkin said.

McLurkin said that recently he has had to give up these hobbies temporarily in order to focus on his role as a professor.

"I set sight on being a professor in 1999," McLurkin said. "It was literally 10 years towards this goal, so right now, I want to be a successful professor, and I think for now it's worth trading [my hobbies] to get a balance among papers, proposal, research, teaching and mentoring students."

In addition to teaching and research, McLurkin is also an active associate at McMurtry College, where he organizes an Urban Cycling program, in which he teaches students about bike control and how to navigate a bike safely around Houston.

"What's Their Secret?" is a weekly feature that highlights a faculty member who has had a significant impact on Rice students.



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