Learning by doing

Don Heer working at a computer

Growing up an only child on a farm near Lowell, Oregon, Don Heer says he learned to self entertain — that is, when he wasn’t picking blueberries, shoveling cow manure, or training his “attack” pig named Gub Gub.

“I actually didn't train him at all, but it sounds better to say he was an attack pig rather than that I just wasn’t good at 4H,” he jokes.

Building robots was one of his favorite hobbies, starting as young as four years old when he built one out of an old ammo can. His dad tells a story that he earnestly begged to turn the family car into a transformer.

It made sense, then, when he was a graduate student in OSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science that he was recruited to coordinate the TekBots program which was just starting up at the time.

TekBots are programmable robots that the school uses to introduce students to basic concepts of electrical and computer engineering. They have been used in ten different EECS classes at OSU; the students reuse the robots which become progressively more complex as they continue on through the Platform for Learning class sequence. TekBots has been very successful — expanding to 11 different schools across the U.S., Korea, and Japan.

Don Heer SCUBA diving
Don Heer enjoys scuba diving all over the
Caribbean, Mexico, and off the U.S. Coast. He is
also a scuba instructor.

“There have been about 5,000 individual students that have used TekBots across the world…so that’s pretty cool,” Heer says.

It was the perfect job for Heer, who not only had hobbyist skills from his youth, but whose philosophy of teaching is “learn by doing.” Heer also teaches an introductory programming class and the senior design sequence. Both are project based which, he says, can be a challenging experience for students who are not used to that teaching method.

“All of my courses are really hard, and when the students feel downtrodden half way through, I remind them, ‘You just did this lab. Can you imagine doing that four weeks ago?’ And when they realize how far they’ve come, a light comes on for them. Seeing that light is what I love about teaching,” he says.

Teaching has also entered his other passion — scuba diving. A hobby he started as soon as he turned 18, Heer was drawn to it because of his love of water and the chance to see some really interesting wildlife. He has enjoyed diving all over the Caribbean, Mexico, and off the U.S. coast. But what he values most now is the social aspect of diving.

“People don’t realize that, but one of the best parts about scuba is that it’s a shared experience with other people,” he says.

And as a scuba instructor, he gets to watch the transformation of a person who is initially afraid, but grows to love the sport.

From diving, to teaching, to driving his motorcycle “too fast,” Heer says he is always trying some “new crack-brained” idea and sharing it with others.


Aug. 30, 2017