Visco first to win Brown/Henderson and Sissom Awards in same year

Don Visco, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Tennessee Tech University, captured two of the College of Engineering's most prestigious annual awards this year because his students are convinced he cares about their academic success and will use innovative methods, including a popular game show response system, to help them learn.

Visco received the 2006 Leighton E. Sissom Innovation and Creativity Award as well as the 2006 Brown-Henderson Outstanding Engineering Faculty Award for the volume and quality of his work guiding chemical engineering majors to answers about their interests, capabilities and expectations.

"I ask students 'Why do you want to be a chemical engineer,' and they say 'I like chemistry, and I'm good in math,'" said Visco, who is the first contact a potential TTU chemical engineering student meets to talk about the future.

"But few of them know what a chemical engineer actually does," he said. "The only engineer I see on television is the husband on 'Medium,' and he's not a major character. We see doctors and lawyers and know something about what they do, but students don't know what chemical engineers do."

To cultivate students' intrinsic interest in science and engineering that brought them to TTU in the first place, Visco, with the help and support of departmental colleagues, created a course, "Introduction to Chemical Engineering." The course answers questions about careers to pursue, skills to develop and experiences to expect.

Additionally, students perform simple, hands-on experiments that relate to a chemical engineering concept they will see later on in their curriculum. Students help design the course content by letting Visco know what they wish they knew about their major.
Basically, the goal of the class is for students to make an informed decision about their potential career choice," said Visco. “The more they know in this area, the better decisions they’ll make.”

Visco's students are especially complimentary of his style, which includes using a Classroom Response System, or "clickers," to allow students to answer questions at the beginning of each class. They enter responses to a question using handheld transmitters, much like those used by the audience on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," and the collective answers appear in graphical form illustrating whether or not most students understand the question's concept.

“Once I display the distribution of answers, we discuss why they are right or wrong. It is a great ‘teachable moment,'" said Visco.

His innovations are often simple plans to personalize his students’ experiences and develop trust with them. He provides a personal biography in the syllabus and asks, as a first assignment, for the students to turn in one to him. He takes digital photographs to help him remember students' names. He offers a recitation, or review, session each week designed to help students feel comfortable asking questions.

Another technique he has used is to have students pick up the first exam in his office because professor's offices are traditionally intimidating and students will avoid coming there if possible.

"There is not a single instance where I remember him quitting on someone who was not able to understand an issue, regardless of it being academic or non-academic," said Barath Baburao, who was mentored as a master's student by Visco.

Other innovations include a New Faculty Workshop to help new College of Engineering faculty who are adept in research become more familiar with what works in classroom teaching. Visco also developed a mentoring system for his graduate students that allows them to teach and then evaluate themselves on a regular basis.

"It is hard for me to imagine a more intellectually gifted faculty member, or a more innovative caring professor," said Christina Payne, a former TTU chemical engineering major who is now a Vanderbilt graduate student.

TTU College of Engineering Dean Glen Johnson said Visco's double nomination reflects a special combination of talent and commitment to teaching and innovation.
"It is unusual for the same professor to win these two awards in the same year, but different committees reviewed different nominations, and Dr. Visco's work stood out for both awards," said Johnson. "This is a testimony to his very high quality work."

The Sissom Award honors Leighton E. Sissom, former dean of TTU's College of Engineering, and recognizes scholarship, methodology, invention, technique and other contributions within TTU's College of Engineering. The Brown-Henderson award honors outstanding performance in teaching and research or service and carries the names of Engineering Dean Emeritus James Seay Brown and James Henderson, the college's first dean.

Visco adds these honors to previous awards that include the national 2004 Presidential Early Career Scientist and Engineer Award. Previous TTU awards include the 2002 Sigma Xi Research Award and the 2000 Kinslow Engineering Research Award.

Visco earned his bachelor's degree and doctorate from the University at Buffalo, SUNY, with an in-between stint in the U.S. Navy. He has taught at TTU since 1999 and serves as his department's undergraduate program coordinator.