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FALL 2009
VOL. 36, NO. 1

Mark your calendars for Friday, Oct. 9, 2010, when the Badgers play Minnesota.




College of Engineering spring appreciation celebration

In May, faculty and mingled at our annual appreciation celebration. This year, our event theme was, “And baby, take a look at us now!” To create a buzz for the event, we challenged faculty and staff to guess whose baby pictures we displayed. We revealed their “grown-up” identities at the celebration.

Baby picture, Paul S. Peercy, Faculty and Staff Spring Appreciation Celebration
Baby picture, Linda Kelly, Faculty and Staff Spring Appreciation Celebration
Baby picture, Dennis Ray, Faculty and Staff Spring Appreciation Celebration

Baby picture, Mike Corradini, Faculty and Staff Spring Appreciation Celebration
Baby picture, Mary Diaz, Faculty and Staff Spring Appreciation Celebration
Baby picture, Tammy Kuhn Martin, Faculty and Staff Spring Appreciation Celebration

At a special ceremony, we congratulated the following award recipients.

Katherine (Trina) McMahon

The 2009 Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award for Excellence in Teaching —
Katherine (Trina) . McMahon, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Bacteriology

Katherine (Trina) McMahon’s colleagues regard her as a world-class researcher who, with infectious excitement about the material, masterfully integrates relevant research content and concepts into carefully conceived courses. Her students call her an enthusiastic, approachable and fun teacher whose passion for environmental engineering and microbiology is contagious. They praise her ability to explain complex concepts, they appreciate the value she places on each student’s contributions, and they recognize her deep commitment to her students’ success.

Set in an open atmosphere that encourages dialog and critical thinking, McMahon’s courses combine instructional elements that target several learning styles. Each lecture includes opportunities for the students to construct their own understanding, as well as methods for McMahon to assess their performance. Her assessment tools enable students to gauge their learning and help McMahon identify concepts that need review. She routinely administers an end-of-semester online questionnaire (an evaluation beyond the standard departmental course evaluation) that encourages students to reflect on how aspects of her courses have contributed to their learning or developed their engineering skill sets. McMahon incorporates their feedback into future courses.

She views teaching excellence as a lifelong evolutionary process filled with experimentation, iterative modification and repeated assessment. As part of this “teaching as research” approach, McMahon has participated in numerous teaching-improvement discussion groups, workshops and courses at UW-Madison and through the American Society of Civil Engineers. She is involved in curriculum development and improvement activities on campus and throughout the national engineering community.

McMahon is a formal mentor with the engineering Diversity Affairs Office Sloan Engineering Mentoring Program and holds an annual community-building retreat for her students and postdoctoral researchers. She encourages undergraduate involvement in research; to date, four of her undergrads have received prestigious UW-Madison undergraduate research funding. “She gave me guidance in choosing a proposal topic from the ideas that sprung up from my own curiosity,” says one under-graduate researcher. “She took care to guide my ideas, rather than push them in a certain direction, allowing me to use my own initiative. ... This ability to allow students to pursue their own ideas while still guiding them along the way is a very important attribute for excellent teachers.”

Juan de Pablo

The 2009 Byron Bird Award for Excellence in a Research Publication —
Juan J. de Pablo, Howard Curler Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Through a series of nine research articles — each of which colleagues worldwide consider a landmark publication — Juan de Pablo has demonstrated advances in developing powerful computational methods that enable researchers to conduct molecular simulations of complex fluids. He and his students invented new simulation methods, algorithms and theoretical formalisms that are key to establishing quantitative relations between atomic-level structure and interactions, processing conditions, macroscopic properties, and performance in applications.

Researchers have a clear understanding of how molecules interact in complex fluids, polymers, electrolytes and biomolecules. Researchers also know what fundamental forces are acting between the molecules, and they can assign equations that govern this behavior. Yet, even with today’s powerful computers, solving these equations can take months — even years, if it is possible. “Juan de Pablo seems to have figured out how to overcome this limitation through the implementation of revolutionary algorithms.” says colleague Frank Bates of the University of Minnesota.

The algorithms are mostly stochastic; basically, they generate random realizations of the problem at hand and, using well-defined rules, researchers can assign different weights to those realizations and relate the results to experimental data.

The research papers, published from 1999 to 2003 either in the Journal of Chemical Physics or Physical Review Letters, demonstrate the feasibility and value of joining several ideas: replica exchange techniques, expanded canonical ensembles, and simulations in a multidimensional space of ensemble variables. The early papers set forth the technical utility of the combined method, while later papers use the method to reveal new insights into several theoretically and practically important systems, including polymers, glasses and asymmetric charged systems.

Researchers have cited the papers on more than 550 occasions, according to citation database Web of Science. More importantly, says colleague Doros Theodorou of the National Technical University of Athens, the papers have influenced young chemical engineers interested in statistical mechanics and multiscale simulations as tools for rational, molecular-level design. “His overall modeling and simulation work points the way to new nanoscale products and processes that will form the focus of the chemical, materials and biomolecular engineers of tomorrow,” says Theodorou.

Michael Plesha

The 2009 James G. Woodburn Award for Excellence in Teaching —
Michael Plesha, Professor of Engineering Physics

Michael Plesha wrote the book — literally — on statics. (It’s called Engineering Mechanics: Statics; McGraw-Hill, 2009, with co-authors G.L. Gray and F. Costanzo.) But he didn’t stop there.

Nearly a decade ago, Plesha began teaching Statics (EMA 201). With an enrollment of up to 350 students a semester, the introductory course had a reputation for dry content and uninspired delivery. His goal was to transform the course and excite students about statics, the study and analysis of structural equilibrium. Since then, he has added character, dimension and relevance to this large-scale lecture course, incorporating real-life engineering design problems, introducing applications to such emerging areas as nanotechnology, and developing a series of animations — and videos, in progress — that students say improve their understanding of statics concepts. In addition, he implemented “clicker” response pads that not only provided him real-time feedback about student comprehension of the material, but also promoted interaction among students as they discussed answers with their classmates.

UW-Madison statics students, as well as approximately 800 students per semester at Texas A&M University, have used preview copies of Engineering Mechanics: Statics for years. The modern, 21st-century text incorporates meaningful design discussions, comprehensive treatment of free-body diagrams, structured problem-solving approaches and problem-based introduction of new mechanical concepts. Plesha and his co-authors are plowing new pedagogical ground with problem-solving methodology that helps students learn mechanics concepts and transfer that knowledge to practical engineering applications, says William Stenquist, McGraw-Hill Higher Education senior sponsoring editor. “Plesha’s statics book will be at the forefront of engineering education in the U.S. and throughout the world,” he says.

As a complement to their statics text, Plesha, Gray and Costanzo authored Engineering Mechanics: Dynamics (also via McGraw-Hill). The variety of examples makes the texts relevant to students with myriad interests, says Engineering Physics Professor Robert Witt. “From camping tools to transmissions, from NASCAR to James Bond-like chase scenes, from biomedical devices to air traffic control, Mike and his colleagues have selected a set of examples that change the way students look at their world,” he says. “When students see things around them in an entirely new perspective — it’s not a front porch, it’s an array of load-bearing and zero-force members — it’s clear that their education has been transformational. Mike is a catalyst of transformation.”

Paul Voyles

The 2009 Harvey Spangler Award for Technology Enhanced Instruction —
Paul Voyles, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering

When he saw a need for real-world examples to help students bridge the gap between theory and application, Paul Voyles provided them — by building an online database of real, raw research data.

Voyles’ courses include graduate-level offerings in transmission electron microscopy, a tool for nanometer- to micrometer-scale characterization and metrology of materials and nanostructures. “One of my overall career goals is to promote the use of quantitative methods in electron microscopy; I believe that we should treat the results of microscopy experiments as data, not just qualitative pictures,” says Voyles. “The best way for students to learn quantitative microscopy techniques is to practice them by using real experimental data for homework exercises.”

Available literature provides pictures, but not the underlying data. To give his students experience in working with raw data, Voyles drew from a close source: his own research. He put entries from his own microscopy experiments into an online catalog, then gathered data from willing colleagues as well, creating the Electron Microscopy database (EMdb). Each record contains homework-style exercises as well as a description of the sample, acquisition conditions and calibration information so that users can design their own exercises as well.

“The EMdb fills a huge void once left empty in electron microscopy education by providing accessible, real-life example problems for student learning,” says a colleague.

Voyles also shares the database with researchers and instructors at institutions around the world, fostering a two-way exchange of active research data. Educators can download entire data sets to distribute to their students, and add their own research results, making the EMdb an extensive instruction and learning tool more complete and current than any textbook.

“From my experience, teaching electron microscopy is quite challenging. There are no widely accepted textbooks, and it requires a huge amount of supplementary material,” says one EMdb user. “So having all of these data sets nicely collected and easily accessible from any computer makes a world of difference for learning electron microscopy.”

Since its public launch in 2007, the EMdb has been accessed by nearly 500 users in over a dozen countries. As one colleague said, “In short, Paul has put the UW-Madison Department of Materials Science and Engineering on the map as a place that leads innovation in electron microscopy.”

Jeffrey Stevens

The 2009 Bollinger Academic Staff Distinguished Achievement Award —
Jeff Stevens, Engineering Media Services

Whenever a technology need arises, faculty, staff and students know whom to call: Jeff Stevens.

Nearly everyone who has ever used a lecture hall or planned an event within the College of Engineering has benefited from his technological expertise and cheerful, “can-do” attitude. For 25 years, Stevens has enabled multimedia applications in the classroom, from overhead projectors and transparencies in the 1980s to PowerPoint, audio and video webcasts today. His resourcefulness, knowledge and energy drive multimedia applications from day-to-day lectures and meetings to campus events.

“He can often be seen hauling a ladder down a hallway for an emergency repair of a classroom projector between periods, or running to a classroom to help a speaker with a recalcitrant laptop,” says a colleague. Stevens carries out even the most mundane tasks with his characteristic charm and good humor. Department chairs, program directors and other faculty and staff who have worked with Stevens uniformly praise his friendly, energetic manner.

“Jeff is one of the unseen and many times unappreciated people who make the college work every day,” says a colleague. “His contribution can most be measured in ongoing college activities: everyday classroom technology that works as expected, equipment available and set up on a moment’s notice, and interesting and creative videos produced to support College research, teaching and public service.”

In addition to providing technical support for day-to-day activities and special events, Stevens produces video that promotes the college with creativity and quality. Stevens is involved from concept to interviewing, editing and visual design. His video segments, many of which are used on the College of Engineering website or at promotional events, are polished and professional, having garnered him two national awards.

“Jeff Stevens is the consummate professional: intelligent, interested, resourceful and ever willing to consider how to make sure your objectives are met,” says a colleague. “His support has made all the difference in the programs I have had the opportunity to produce with the College of Engineering.”

John Cannon

The 2009 Classified Staff Distinguished Achievement Award —
John Cannon, Advanced Instrument Maker, Chemical and Biological Engineering

It might be an understatement to call John Cannon a jack of all trades. A fixture in chemical and biological engineering for more than 25 years, Cannon is an advanced instrument-maker and manages the departmental instrument shop. Yet, his experience and patience make him equally valuable as a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students in the department.

Cannon builds, maintains, troubleshoots and repairs laboratory equipment that includes a three-story-tall distillation column, a humidification unit with parts dating from the 1940s, decades-old experiments designed and constructed in-house, and modern commercial instruments. His work takes him into laboratories and into contact with equipment where many different chemicals are in use or were used. “John's knowledge and experience with these laboratories is a major reason these diverse experiments operate safely and effectively amid chemical and mechanical complexity and potential hazards,” says Harvey D. Spangler Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Michael Graham.

Cannon sets up, tears down, troubleshoots and repairs equipment for instructional laboratories for up to four chemical and biological engineering courses, as well as two intensive five-week summer courses. In the latter, students conduct five formal experiments and four informal experiments, and Cannon serves as a resource. “He can often lead the students into redesigns that expose initial misconceptions and produce more efficient problem solutions,” says chemical and biological engineering Associate Professor Thatcher Root. “In fact, this need for broad parts, stockroom and shop support is the major reason these informal experiments are not practical at other chemical engineering programs. John Cannon and the capabilities he provides are a key component in the unique background we provide to our BS graduates.”

Cannon works with independent undergraduate researchers and graduate students, offering hands-on training that enables them to fabricate complex parts and construct their experiments. “The best part of this experience, in my mind, is John’s ability to get students to fully think out the engineering process, from design through practical construction and then to end use, before any material is consumed or modified,” says Shoemaker Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Thomas Kuech. “This is a real-world experience in critical thinking and planning which our mostly academically trained students experience for the first time.”

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