Navigation Content
University of Wisconsin Madison College of Engineering
You are here:
  1. Home > 
  2. News > 
  3. News archive > 
  4. 2009 > 

College honors faculty and staff

At the 2009 Appreciation Day celebration May 5, the College of Engineering announced awards to faculty and staff members for their outstanding contributions and achievements, and service to the college.

Polygon Engineering Council Teaching Awards

The faculty and staff winners of the Polygon Teaching Awards, which are chosen by engineering undergraduates, are:

University of Wisconsin-Madison awards

Biomedical Engineering and Pharmacy Professor Weiyuan John Kao received the Vilas Associate Award from UW-Madison.

The H.I. Romnes Faculty Fellowship was awarded to Chemical and Biological Engineering Paul A. Elfers Professor Manos Mavrikakis.

The Hilldale Award was awarded to Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering Gerald Kulcinski.

The Emil H. Steiger Teaching Award was awarded to Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Kristyn Masters.

Assistant Dean of Engineering General Resources Donald Woolston earned a 2009 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Service to the University.

Professor Susan Hagness of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering was awarded the 2009 Alliant Energy Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award by the University of Wisconsin System.

College of Engineering faculty and staff awards

Recipients of the College of Engineering annual awards each receive privately funded stipends and permanent recognition on a plaque in Engineering Hall. Each winner is chosen by a committee of his or her peers. The college will recognize all of the award recipients again at the Engineers’ Day banquet on Friday, October 16, 2009.

Jeffrey Stevens

The 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. For 25 years, Stevens has enabled multimedia applications in the classroom, from overhead projectors and transparencies in the 1980s to PowerPoint 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. And he accomplishes it all with cheerfulness and a positive, “can-do” attitude. 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 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.”

Paul Voyles

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, Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Paul Voyles provided them — by building an online database of real, raw research data.

Voyles teaches graduate-level courses 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 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 Department of Materials Science and Engineering on the map as a place that leads innovation in electron microscopy.”

John Cannon

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 the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering for more than a quarter-century, 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. “John has built on his background knowledge of the chemical and biological sciences, his expert machinist skills, and his ability to effectively guide students in order to contribute to the safe and efficient operation of our laboratories and the education of our students in unique and valuable ways,” says Chemical and Biological Engineering Harvey D. Spangler Professor and Chair Michael Graham.

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 Graham.

During the academic year, 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 teaches them how to safely operate machining equipment and serves as a resource for them as they develop their experiments. “Often, his advice brings in unforeseen aspects of materials selection, parts availability and alternative strategies that save the students time in construction,” says Chemical and Biological Engineering Associate Professor Thatcher Root. “Based on his years of experience with the lab and the varied projects proposed by a changing slate of visiting instructors and UW faculty, he can often lead the students into redesigns that expose initial misconceptions and produce more efficient problem solutions. 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.”

Similarly, Cannon works closely with graduate students and independent undergraduate researchers, offering hands-on training that enables the students to fabricate complex parts and realize their experimental designs. In addition, he discusses those designs with the students and walks them through the details of the construction process. “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.”

Michael Plesha

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

Engineering Physics Professor 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. “Frequent student interaction and dialogue in lectures created an atmosphere that is both challenging and motivating,” says a former student. “Professor Plesha demands excellence in the classroom but always tempers his requests with a sense of respect and assurance that if a student works hard, the outcome will almost always be positive.”

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. “Hitherto, without exception, all the major textbooks, including such classics as Beer and Johnston, were entirely focused on just engineering calculations and no indication was provided into exactly how these calculations were to be used in engineering practice,” says Arun Srinivasa, a Texas A&M associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Plesha’s thoroughly 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.

Coupled with the text, Plesha’s teaching and technological innovations in Statics have increased enrollment significantly in engineering mechanics and astronautics and prompted the Department of Biomedical Engineering to add Statics and its companion, Dynamics, as required undergraduate courses.

As a complement to their statics text, Plesha, Gray and Costanzo authored Engineering Mechanics: Dynamics (publication forthcoming via McGraw-Hill). The variety of examples makes the texts relevant to students with myriad interests, says Engineering Physics Professor Robert Witt, who reviewed the books. “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.”

Katherine (Trina) McMahon

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

Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor 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 characterize her as 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.

McMahon encourages students to challenge themselves intellectually because it is fun and rewarding. Set in an open atmosphere that encourages dialog and critical thinking, her courses combine myriad instructional elements that target several learning styles. For example, she might begin with a “show and tell” — perhaps a sewage sample for sniffing — and present two or three carefully worded and illustrated PowerPoint slides, then slow the pace of the lecture by writing key points on the chalkboard before posing a question or problem for group discussion. Next might come more chalkboard writing followed by multiple-choice questions the students answer via wireless “clicker” response pads and then discuss as a class. Each lecture in every course 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 where they are in the learning process and help McMahon determine concepts or topics that merit review. In addition, she routinely administers an end-of-semester online questionnaire (an evaluation that goes above and beyond the standard departmental course-evaluation forms) that encourages students to reflect on how aspects of her courses have contributed to their learning or developed their engineering skill sets. While those evaluations focus on student learning outcomes, McMahon also incorporates the students’ feedback into future courses.

She views teaching excellence as a lifelong evolutionary process filled with careful 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 sponsored through the UW-Madison Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning and its DELTA program, the UW-Madison Teaching Academy, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. She also is involved in curriculum development and improvement activities both at the university level and throughout the national engineering community. “Not only is she actively engaged in looking for and experimenting with new ideas and approaches to teaching, but she is actively engaged in helping to improve the quality of teaching on this campus and working to provide the next generation of faculty with the skills and abilities they will need in order to be successful teachers,” says a colleague.

To that end, McMahon serves as a formal and informal mentor for faculty colleagues and actively mentors undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. She is a formal mentor with the College of Engineering Diversity Affairs Office Sloan Engineering Mentoring Program and holds an annual community-building retreat for her students and postdoctoral researchers. In addition, 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 undergraduate 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 Byron Bird Award for Excellence in a Research Publication —
Juan de Pablo, Howard Curler Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Through a series of nine research articles — each one of which colleagues worldwide consider a ‘landmark’ publication — Howard Curler Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Juan de Pablo has demonstrated unprecedented advances in developing powerful computational methods that enable researchers to conduct molecular simulations of complex fluids. With his students, de Pablo has 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 at all possible. That’s where de Pablo and his students have made key strides. “Quicker processors and ever-expanding memory has been rapidly consumed by larger systems and more complicated molecules, particularly synthetic and biological polymers,” says colleague Frank Bates of the University of Minnesota. “Juan de Pablo seems to have figured out how to overcome this limitation through the implementation of revolutionary algorithms.”

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. Firmly grounded in the principles of statistical mechanics, the algorithms and methods combine elegance, practical usefulness and versatility in applications, says colleague Hans Christian Öttinger of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. “They are used also by researchers in soft matter physics, biophysics, chemistry, interfacial science ... and they have become standard references for all the leaders in the field of Monte Carlo simulations.”

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. “The attention to both technical detail and physical significance in these works is an essential part of their ultimate impact,” says colleague Gregory Rutledge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The first is crucial to any ‘early adopters’ of the work; without the confidence and reliability it provides, others such as myself may not take the risk to implement. The second serves the goal of ‘teaching’ the community how and why it may benefit from the adoption of such new methods.”

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.