John Mah has earned two teaching awards in the past two months, and reading comments from his students, it’s not hard to see why.
“He taught with such enthusiasm and expertise that even the most uninterested student would listen.” – Grace Edwards
“Professor Mah is without a doubt the best teacher I’ve ever had.” – Helena Franklin
“John Mah’s class is the only reason I would ever willingly drive in 4 inches of snow on unplowed road, at sub 10 degrees F, at 7:30 a.m.” – Fiona McGann
Mah, an instructor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, has been recognized with the 2019 John and Mercedes Peebles Innovation in Education Award by the College of Engineering and Applied Science and a 2019 Marinus Smith award by the University of Colorado Boulder. Both honors are for excellence in teaching and are the result of nominations by students.
The awards came as a pleasant surprise to Mah, who only joined the CU Boulder faculty in fall 2018, although he came to the university with past teaching experience in the U.S. Air Force.
“I teach very much by trying to tell a story. You have to start with students being interested in what you’re saying. I also try to be pretty open and accessible,” Mah said.
The written nominations Mah received for the awards make clear what he is doing works, with students expressing appreciation for the real-life examples he incorporates in lessons, his ability to clearly explain complicated subjects, and availability to meet with students who have additional questions.
“His lecture style is incredible and he really takes the time to show us where the derivations come from, where they are going, and how they apply to us,” McGann said.
“He is an absolutely amazing professor who makes lectures a true joy to attend. He continues to foster our interest and exposes us to new and interesting ideas. His method of teaching has resonated with every student I’ve talked to, and he continues to help us learn the material, whether from office hours, to email, to lab hours,” Sebastian Damm said.
Despite Mah’s proficiency in the classroom, he did not originally set out to become a teacher. Mah joined the Air Force after high school and progressed on an officer track, graduating from the Air Force Academy and then Stanford University.
“My degrees are in aerospace engineering, but after 9/11 happened, my career went outside engineering into intelligence,” Mah said.
He had spent a decade in multiple intelligence positions in the military when the Air Force reminded him of a promise he had made–they had paid for his master’s at Stanford, and in exchange he owed them a three-year teaching commitment at the Air Force Academy.
It turned out to be perfect timing.
“The intelligence work was stressful and exhausting. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to teach, but I jumped at the opportunity and discovered I really enjoyed it. I owe the Academy a lot of gratitude,” Mah said.
The position lasted only three years, and in 2012, he was given new intelligence orders, deploying first to Hawaii and then later Washington, D.C. He retired from the military in 2018.
“I thought the ship had sailed on teaching until I saw an advertisement from CU Boulder,” Mah said. “After 20 years in the Air Force I didn’t want to get out and just do something for a paycheck, and this was perfect. Life is a weird, nonlinear path.”
Joining the Smead Aerospace faculty has given him a chance to get back into a classroom and prepare a new generation of engineers.
“It’s gratifying to teach people. You can see a student drawing the line from a concept in a textbook to real aircraft design and know you’re having a tangible impact.” Mah said. “Students have an energy that is motivating all by itself.”