College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

The nine lives of Mani Mina

From student to professor, Mani Mina has always been inspired and curious when learning new things. An associate professor in industrial design and electrical and computer engineering (secondary department) at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University, Mina has a past full of learning and teaching a broad range of studies.

When he was a student, he did not know his full potential or where his life would lead, but his professors inspired him to reach his full potential. Now, Mina relays that inspiration to students he teaches, and does research with to show them that they can be anything they want to be, just like his professors did to him.       

In his past, Mina, originally from Iran, desired to come to the United States. He was planning to go to Toronto, Canada but the plans changed due to developments in Iran.

“I found a program in Toronto where I could study physics and engineering in two different languages,” Mina said. Already knowing English, the second language Mina learned was French.

Mina eventually came to the United States enrolled at ISU, studying physics and electrical engineering. When his first class rolled around, Engineering 150, Mina walked out of the classroom before class ended.     

“Engineering 150 was so boring!” Mina said. “It was painful.”

At the end of the course, Mina quickly learned that he prefers the professor over the class.

Throughout his time as a student at ISU, Mina had nine very different academic interests. Mina said the number one reason for taking these classes was solely based on the professors teaching them.

“When I found one professor that I liked, I stuck with that professor and took every single class they offered,” Mina said.

This devotion to professors resulted in Mina having a knowledge of many different studies. Mathematics, social psychology, theater, martial arts, French, philosophy, cinema, film and history and history of science were the nine areas that Mina stuck with outside of his electrical engineering and physics degrees.

“Of all the nine areas I took courses in, history of science was the subject that affected me the most, but it was all because of the professor, Robert Scholfield,” Mina said.

Schofield, who passed away in 2011, was a scientific historian and author of several books. He taught history of science and inspired Mina, leading him to become a professor and inspire others. They worked together daily, studying science history.

“I remember, Robert Schofield would assign me one 700-page book to read every week,” Mina said. “It was a challenge, but I learned so much.”

Now, Mina teaches two classes, both of which are filled up quickly with eager students. He teaches Electromagnetism (EM), a freshman class, along with Industrial Design, a tech and engineering literacy class that Mina created himself, inspired by Schofield.

“This class (Industrial Design) is the ‘human side’ of engineering,” Mani said. “I think it is really important for students to see engineering from a different perspective, from a more human perspective, opposed to the usual, logic-based perspective.”           

This school year, Mina is offering a new course: Electronics Design and Prototyping for Non-engineers.

“Students should all have the opportunity to learn about anything they want,” Mina said. “This class allows students who are not engineers to still have the chance to learn about engineering without devoting their entire educational careers to it.”         

When Mina was a student, his advisor in physics did not agree Mina should take the classes outside of physics or engineering, because his advisor thought Mina should stick with engineering classes. But Mina took the classes anyway and built amazing relationships, so now he is opening classes that give students the chance to do the same. While he learned a lot from his favorite courses, the professors are what made him stay in the field.

Now, Mina models his most influential professors by teaching in the same way and interacting with students on an equal level.

Neelam Prabhu Gaunkar, an electrical engineering student working toward a Ph.D., is inspired by Mina’s style of teaching and research and hopes to adapt some of the techniques when she enters academics.

“I have been in almost all the courses he has offered,” Prabhu Gaunkar said. “His style is different than most, and in his courses he requires us to think, learn and reflect right in the classroom.”

Prabhu Gaunkar stuck with Mina after the first class she had with him. In her independent study course she took thereafter, she wanted to learn as in the classroom but felt unprepared once she has to discuss and reflect on her learning by writing her ideas and thoughts on the white board.

“I was scared to take a risk and make a mistake,” Prabhu Gaunkar said, “From that course, the strongest message he gave me was, ‘Mistakes are good. They help you learn, sometimes faster than you would like.’”

Now, Prabhu Gaunkar and Mina work together on research, teaching and other educational activities.

“He has impacted me even in my journey beyond ISU by setting me on a path of lifelong learning,” Prabhu Gaunkar said. “I sincerely appreciate his efforts in making an impact on every student he interacts with.”

With Mina, he focuses on helping students become aware of their learning methods and expects them to question not only what they learn, but also why they are learning it and why it matters. By facilitating students to be creative and question everything, students start to learn what matters to them and what their interests are.

“Some students really don’t see how good they are and can be,” Mina said. “So then it is my job to show that student their true potential and show them how amazing they truly are.”