Published: Dec. 28, 2018 By

Mechanical engineering Senior Instructor Jeffrey Knutsen was awarded the 2018 Charles A. Hutchinson Memorial Teaching Award, recognizing outstanding contributions to teaching. This award is given in honor of Charles A. Hutchinson, a distinguished professor of applied mathematics from 1918 to 1966.

Jeff Knutsen teaching his first class in 2009

Senior Instructor Jeff Knutsen teaches his first course, Fluid Dynamics at CU Boulder in 2009

Knutsen tried teaching for the first time while working as a postdoc at Colorado School of Mines. He used the entirety of his vacation to teach a five-week summer course in Fluid Dynamics at CU Boulder. 


“It didn’t take long for me to realize this was something I was born to do,” Knutsen says. “I rarely had aspirations to move up in my prior career, but I quickly found that teaching is something I really love, and I strive to excel at it.​”

However, Knutsen’s beginnings were not without a healthy dose of stage fright. He recalls his second day of teaching when a student, seeing his distress, asked if he would like to take a break. Knutsen accepted, spent several minutes composing himself and, from that point forward, launched into a career where he and his students were able to learn from one another.

Over the past decade, Knutsen has taught upward of 2,000 students, at least half of which have taken more than one class with him. He has been an instructor for ten courses including Heat Transfer and Thermodynamics, among others. Students often ask which course is his favorite to which he responds, “It’s whichever course I haven’t taught in a while.”

Though Knutsen studied Chemical Engineering and received his PhD from CU Boulder’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, he found his teaching home in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Anything related to physics he loved, so when he began learning more about statics and dynamics, he was thrilled. Though seemingly inconvenient, his initial lack of expertise in these areas enabled better learning for students. "Since I was learning at the same time as my students, I knew what the students would struggle with,” Knutsen said. "I emphasize concepts that didn't click well with me."

Knutsen believes a good instructor is someone who wouldn’t want to do anything else in his or her life. He recognizes that students won’t remember most of what is taught five years from now, but he hopes they have a solid grasp of core concepts, so they can relearn material along the way.

Knutsen utilizes what is called the “flipped classroom” where he asks students to read the book, complete a reading quiz and watch the videos he creates before class, allowing him to spend class time exploring more challenging topics. Other professors have even started using Knutsen’s name as a verb to refer to when a challenging course is taught in a way that makes students love learning despite class rigor.

A student writes in his recommendation letter, “Knutsen’s unique teaching style makes learning the material far more motivating and interesting. His passion for the material is contagious.”

Knutsen’s favorite time of the week is office hours when he poses unintuitive questions to students that lead to further exploration. For example, he encourages students to think about where a tree’s mass comes from, how far an ant can fall without dying and why clouds (tiny droplets of water) don’t fall out of the sky.

“Real-world engineering problems are not textbook problems,” he says. “Students must learn to think and come to conclusions on their own.”

In light of receiving this award, there are many people Knutsen wishes to thank: Department Chair, Mike Hannigan, Kat McConnell for her support, John Falconer and Derek Reamon for being an inspiration, Shalom Ruben and Daria Kotys-Schwartz for being influential in sharing alternative teaching techniques and his students for their hard work and for making it all possible. 

“Not a day goes by where I take it for granted,” Knutsen says. “Every Monday morning, I feel grateful to have stumbled into teaching.”