Fractals and chaos theory aren’t the usual tools of civil engineers, but for Associate Professor David Mays, they are key to his research. He has used those tools to develop new ways of dealing with issues like groundwater contamination.

Mays started teaching as a member of Teach For America. “I got into it partly because I got rejected by Peace Corps,” Mays said. “I still wanted to take a couple of years at the beginning of my career to contribute back to society before I got into my regular engineering career path.”

“It’s important that we work with how people really are, not how we wish they should be.”

—David Mays

Associate Professor | College of Engineering and Applied Sciences

He taught drafting and electronics courses for high school students in St. Martinville, a small rural town in southern Louisiana. It was a difficult transition.

“I was 21 years old, I had just graduated from school, and I’d never really had any personal conflicts with anybody in my life before,” Mays said. “When you’re a high school teacher, occasionally you have personal conflicts with the students. So I had a crash course in managing personal conflict, and that’s where the stress came from.”

Despite the stress, Martinville was a positive experience. “Without it, it’s not clear that I would have ever gone back for a PhD or looked for a professor job,” Mays said.

A few years ago, he got a call from two former Martinville students. “I was delighted to hear one of my students, who used to give me grief, later became a high school teacher, and then he understood how I felt,” Mays said. “It was just good to hear his Cajun accent once again.”

Mays still works to be a more effective teacher. What he teaches has changed little since he started at CU Denver, but his methods of teaching has evolved profoundly. “When I first came here I thought I was pretty good,” Mays said. “Then I went to a week-long workshop two years later. I found out that I could be a lot better.” He’s received numerous teaching awards since.

He has worked to make engineering more inclusive. “What we can do as college professors is to make sure that everybody in the classroom feels like they’re part of the community and their opinion is valued, so that they can do the best that they can without spending any effort wondering if they’re supposed to be there,” Mays said.

He also learned to break up his lectures with small group discussion and activities. “Humans are not good at focusing for more than about 15 minutes at time,” Mays said. “It’s important that we work with how people really are, not how we wish they would be.”

For his research, Mays collaborates with colleagues at CU Boulder and with three different graduate students.

Recently, he and a student published a paper suggesting that natural gas, commonly viewed as a stepping stone from coal to renewable, may actually be worse for the environment than coal, due to leaking.

Neither he, nor the student, had worked on such a problem before, but Mays was enthusiastic to do so. “I have my own research expertise and interests that I’ve been investigating since I was in graduate school, but I’m also very interested in supporting students and letting them do what they want to do.”

—Gideon Simons

Above: David Mays has a passion for teaching and he values student inclusion.

photo: Sarai Nissan • CU Denver Sentry

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