Two TTU ChemE professors win national awards from ASEE

Two Tennessee Tech University Chemical Engineering professors captured national attention at the recent American Society for Engineering Education Conference and Exposition in Chicago. Don Visco and Joe Biernacki were honored with two of the top awards in the chemical engineering division for their scholarship and research.

Visco received the Ray W. Fahien Jr. Award, given in honor of the founding father of the journal Chemical Engineering Education. The award, limited to faculty within the first 10 years of their careers, is given annually to an educator who has shown evidence of vision and contribution to chemical engineering education.

Visco’s nomination cited his vast mentoring of students at all levels, from undergraduates to doctoral candidates, in both technical research and education-based scholarship.  Additionally, Visco has developed a model for using graduate students as co-instructors, not just teaching assistants, in undergraduate classes.

To cultivate students' intrinsic interest in science and engineering, Visco, with the help of his colleagues, created an Introduction to Chemical Engineering course. Students perform simple, hands-on experiments that relate to a chemical engineering concept that they will see later in their curriculum.

Other ways Visco has contributed to engineering education include his formation of a workshop for new faculty on campus related to education, his service as the ASEE campus representative coordinating Brown Bag lunch seminars on educational topics, and his development of the Chemical Engineering Division of the Southeastern Section of ASEE

“It is nice to be honored from a personal standpoint since it validates, at some level, my career choice," Visco said.  “But the recognition our department and university obtain from these national awards is very satisfying.  When we mention as a vision being an ‘acknowledged leader in engineering and technology education,' such awards go a long way toward supporting this vision.”

In addition to the Fahien Award, Visco was the first faculty member to receive the College of Engineering's Leighton E. Sissom Innovation and Creativity Award as well as the Brown-Henderson Outstanding Engineering Faculty Award in the same year.

Joe Biernacki's commitment to creating new ways to assess the quality of classroom education earned him the first award received by any Tennessee Tech University chemical engineering faculty member from ASEE's Chemical Engineering Division.

His article "A Quantitative Course-level Strategy for Using ABET-based Assessment Outcomes" garnered him ASEE's prestigious 2006 William H. Corcoran Award. The same article also won the 2006 Thomas C. Evans Instructional Paper Award at the ASEE-SE meeting and was a featured article in the Annals of Research on Engineering Education.

Biernacki took it upon himself to fill a gap he found in the knowledge that existed about assessing and tracking student performance as it relates to accreditation by ABET, the recognized accreditor for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology. In a three-year case study, he implemented an outcomes-based approach and assessed the relationship between student performance and classroom teaching.

"Traditionally, most of us do not design our courses around outcomes, but rather around requirements," Biernacki explained. "Prior to ABET's putting an emphasis on explicitly defining outcomes and tracking performance, most of us faculty members placed value in course requirements such as homework, exams, attendance and projects, typically with a single lumped grade for each."

He suggested, rather, a week-by-week approach in which homework, quizzes, projects and the like are broken down into outcomes, modified accordingly and then implemented.

"In the old system, students were assessed according to what fraction of the overall problem was correct, generally irrespective of what skill-based elements of the problem were correct or incorrect," he said. "With an outcomes-based system, skill-based outcomes are identified and elements are independently scored.

"With this system, faculty can offer real-time intervention at both the course and individual levels," said Biernacki, whose paper was published in Chemical Engineering Education (2005). "Students performing poorly against a specific outcome can be given extra help, and changes at the classroom level can be made if large numbers of students are having trouble in a given outcome area."

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