Remembering Nattu: Longtime faculty member remembered for dedication to student learning

February 8, 2016

Longtime faculty member N. "Nattu" Natarajan is remembered for his dedication for student learning.

Nattu Natarajan
Nattu Natarajan
Nattu Natarajan, left, is remembered for his passion for teaching and mentoring.

Friends and colleagues were never short on words to describe N. “Nattu” Natarajan: He was a gifted conversationalist and storyteller, a mentor to his peers and the “smartest man in the room.”

Above all, though, he was the consummate teacher, dedicated to students’ personal and professional growth.

“When you saw him talking with the students, you wouldn’t even know he was a professor. He was just one of the team members,” said Yi Lu Murphey, associate dean for graduate education and research in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “That’s why all the students loved him—it’s not easy to earn that kind of affection.”

Natarajan, a longtime associate professor of electrical and computer science at University of Michigan-Dearborn, died Saturday, January 30. He was 63 years old.

Natarajan joined the UM-Dearborn faculty in 1988 and quickly became a favorite professor among electrical and computer science students. Colleagues said students from across the department would seek his assistance—regardless of whether or not they were in his courses.

“Nattu spent countless hours beyond regular teaching obligations to nurture our students in learning and professional development,” said Dongming Zhao, professor of electrical and computer science. “Students could talk to him any time and ask for help whenever they needed it, weekdays or weekends.”

In 2002, Natarajan founded the Intelligent Systems Club (ISC) as a way to guide students in engineering design projects and coach them to put knowledge from books into practice.

“My teaching philosophy has always been that you learn by doing,” Natarajan said in a 2014 video. “To me, the best way to get a student to succeed is to let them experiment … They get to play … They learn how [things] works. And I tell them: Don’t worry about what it costs. Because the cost of ignorance is much, much higher than the cost of learning.”

Natarajan led ISC members to regional and national competitions, with teams steadily climbing the rankings over time. UM-Dearborn teams have won the Institute of Navigation (ION) Satellite Division’s Autonomous Snowplow Competition two consecutive years.

Their latest win came just two weekends ago in St. Paul, Minn. At the event, competition organizers announced that the Golden Smile Award for sportsmanship would be renamed in Natarajan’s memory.

Natarajan’s commitment to teaching wasn’t limited to college students. In 2006, he and mechanical engineering professor Alan Argento established the Engineering and Computer Science Experience. The annual event welcomes high school students to campus to compete in a variety of interdisciplinary contests.

While teaching was always at the forefront, colleagues said Natarajan’s impact on the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department extended beyond mentoring students. He was instrumental in developing curriculum for the undergraduate robotics degree program—which launched in 2014—and developed or revamped nearly a dozen courses. He also helped establish several of the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s labs, including the computer lab and micro-processing lab.

In 2012, UM-Dearborn recognized Natarajan as the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award for tenured faculty.

“He took undergraduate education very seriously,” Murphey said. “He made us all ask ourselves how much more we could be doing for our students.”

Natarajan earned a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from University of California-Berkeley. Before teaching at UM-Dearborn, he served as faculty at Washington University in St. Louis and U-M Ann Arbor.

A campus memorial ceremony will be held Friday, February 12, noon-4 p.m., in the IAVS.

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