Michigan Tech Magazine, December 2005
Campus Digest


Rail buff and civil engineering professor Bill Sproule aims to make Michigan Tech one of the top railroad engineering schools in the nation.

Above: Rail buff and civil engineering professor Bill Sproule aims to make Michigan Tech
one of the top railroad engineering schools in the nation.

Sproule Prepares Students to Build a Better Railroad

Once they built a railroad and made it run, but now they are retiring. And there are precious few who can fill those departing engineers' boots. Now, thanks to a unique, five-week summer program, Michigan Tech is on track to become one of the top railroad engineering schools in the nation.

A few weeks of summer school doesn't make you a railroad engineer, but it does lay the foundation. The Michigan Tech Railroad Program provides an introduction to railroads, rail terminology, design, and operations, says Bill Sproule, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. Typically, railroads hire civil engineers (mechanical and electrical engineers and technology grads are also in demand) and train them in the industry's intricacies.

Students study on campus for a week and then head to Chicago for a week of tours and presentations from the rail industry. Then it's on to Tampere, Finland, for three weeks of classes, projects, and technical tours.

Classes are held at the Tampere University of Technology, where the students also take a course in Finnish language and culture. In the first year, sixteen students enrolled in the program, and this year thirteen signed on, including one student from the University of Kentucky.

The Michigan Tech Railroad Program already has begun to make a name for itself. Five of the six largest railways in the US-CSX Transportation, Burlington Northern, Union-Pacific, Canadian National, and Canadian Pacific-were on campus last year to interview Michigan Tech students for full-time positions, and they are finding a receptive audience. Railroad consulting firms and agencies that operate urban rail systems are seeking MTU students, and summer railroad internships are now available.

"Most railroad recruiters can't just walk on campus and find people who are interested," Sproule notes. "The program is providing a special niche for our students and a good source of employees for the railroads at a time they need them most. Because there are not many universities with a railroad engineering course, we're now among the top railroad engineering schools in the nation."

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Charles Nelson, Brian Davis Honored for Teaching

Charles Nelson

Charles Nelson and the one ring of power,
as featured in Tolkein's masterwork,
The Lord of the Rings.

Charles Nelson, professor of humanities, and Brian Davis, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, received Michigan Tech's 2005 Distinguished Teaching Awards.

Nelson, who has become a legend at Michigan Tech for his three decades of teaching The Lord of the Rings, was cited for his enthusiastic, ever-changing approach to J.R.R. Tolkein's classic trilogy. "He does a wonderful job of sharing what he knows while at the same time listening and learning from the students," said one of Nelson's students.

For Davis's students, zoning out is not an option. "I ask pointed questions to all the students," he says. The style seems to work: "He is the best instructor on campus," students said. "He teaches by listening to us."

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Pavlis Gives $2 Million to Promote Technological Leadership

Frank PavlisWhen Frank Pavlis graduated from Michigan Tech in 1938, he was the first in his family to make it through college,
graduating at the top of his class with a BS in Chemical Engineering.

That education enabled his highly successful career, which began in 1940 at Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., a Fortune 500 company. Retiring in 1980 as its vice president for international/world trade, Pavlis now is giving back. His $2 million gift to the university will give selected students the skills in technological leadership that formed the underpinning of his own career.

"The Pavlis gift will allow us to initiate a four-year technological leadership program that will give our students entrepreneurial spirit, communication skills, and a broad perspective that includes not only technical abilities but also the global business sense to create a quality future for all of us," Dean of Engineering Robert Warrington said.

The program will include an enriched curriculum, special seminars, and international experience for students.

"Frank's help will allow us to leap ahead in educating students who can lead in the management of innovation," President Glenn Mroz said. "We modeled this program on the experiences of Frank and a lot of other alumni who devoted their careers to managing innovation.

"These same skills are even more critical today, given the competitive global economy. We cannot outsource innovation. We need a new generation of leaders to make sure we stay competitive," Mroz said. "This program will provide a unique opportunity for our students to excel, as it fuses science and technology with business and communication skills. This is key to their success, as it has been with alumni like Frank."

In the global economy, it soon won't be enough to just be an engineer, Pavlis says. With most of the world's manufacturing moving to Asia, it's imperative that American universities respond, including Michigan Tech.

"The current global challenge is frightening and is going to affect the entire country," Pavlis said. "American higher education institutions need to adapt, or fate will pass them by."

The new technological leadership program is just the sort of adaptation required, he said, adding that complacency is not an option. Throughout history, nations have risen and fallen on the world scene, and with the ascendancy of China, "the future of the world is likely to be in the East," he said. To compete, American engineers will need a broader set of skills, similar to those Pavlis drew upon to help Air Products become a leader in the US specialty gas market. "My goal is to persuade others to think in a like manner, which is why I invested in this program," he said.

After graduating from Michigan Tech, Pavlis earned an MS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan and later completed the Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program.

After turning down a job with Shell Oil, he became the first employee at Air Products, then in Detroit, where he was paid three dollars a day as chief engineer and helped design an affordable oxygen generator, which became the foundation of the company's product line.

Air Products currently employs nearly 20,000 workers around the globe and had 2004 sales of $7.4 billion. It has built leading positions in key growth markets such as semiconductor materials, refinery hydrogen, home health-care services, natural gas liquefaction, and advanced coatings and adhesives.

During his forty years with the company, Pavlis rose through the ranks, joining the board of directors in 1952 and serving as vice president for engineering and then for finance before retiring in 1980 as vice president for international/world trade. A longtime supporter of the University, he is a member of Michigan Tech's McNair and Hubbell Societies.

"Air Products was often looked down upon in the early years because we were the little guy and were competing against the big companies," Pavlis recalls. "Now, Air Products dominates some of those markets."

Like Air Products in 1940, Michigan Tech is "the little guy," Pavlis says, at least compared to the other two universities he attended. Also like Air Products, that means MTU must make the extra effort to succeed and differentiate itself from other schools. "That's why I chose to invest in Tech," he said. "I like the little guy."

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Enrollment Up, Bottom Line Positive

The University ended the fiscal year June 30 with a healthy bottom line, and then heard more good news in September, when tallies showed a 4 percent increase in on-campus enrollment.

"This illustrates the progress the University is making in achieving the enrollment goals as established in our strategic plan," President Glenn Mroz said. "And it underlines the great work being done by our faculty and staff as we advance toward our goal of becoming a national university of choice."

The number of on-campus students has increased by 263, to 6,510, due in part to an 8 percent increase in the number of entering freshmen and transfer students. In addition, on-campus graduate student enrollment is 896, an increase of nearly 10 percent.

"This is an exciting time for Michigan Tech. We are seeing the efforts of many come to fruition," said Les Cook, vice president for student affairs. "It all comes down to many people doing many of the right things."

In addition, lower-than-anticipated expenses resulted in a healthy cushion of black ink at the end of the 2004-05 fiscal year, according to CFO Dan Greenlee. The University had budgeted to finish the year with revenues equaling expenditures. When the books closed June 30, the $109-million general fund was approximately $1.9 million in the black.

In addition, the University received $1 million more in tuition and $300,000 more in revenue from research contracts than anticipated.

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Michigan Tech Board Member Honored by NASA

Kathryn Clark, vice chair of Michigan Tech's Board of Control, has been awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest honor NASA accords to nongovernmental personnel.

Clark was a member of the Stafford Covey Task Group, which was formed to oversee NASA's response to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, convened after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentering the atmosphere, in February 2003. Officials concluded that the shuttle's heat-shielding ceramic tiles were damaged by a chunk of foam that broke away during the launch and hit the orbiter's surface. Clark focused on detecting and repairing problems with the thermal protection system while the orbiter is in space.

Her efforts proved critical when a piece of foam again was dislodged during the launch of Discovery in July. When astronauts investigated, they discovered a piece of insulation protruding from tiles at the bottom of the orbiter. They successfully completed repairs, and Discovery landed safely.

Clark is president of Docere, LLC, a consulting company that specializes in science and education. A former scientist at NASA, she has served as deputy director of the NASA Commercial Space Center's Center for Microgravity Automation Technology, which provides imaging technology for the space station.

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Subhash Receives Research Award

Professor Ghatu Subhash
Professor Ghatu Subhash with his Dynamic Indentation Hardness Tester, which measures how materials respond to high rates of loading

Professor Ghatu Subhash, who has gained an international reputation for his research in mechanical engineering and materials science, is the recipient of Michigan Tech's 2005 Research Award.

This makes him one of a handful of MTU faculty to be honored with both the Research Award and the Distinguished Teaching Award, which he received in 1994.

He credited both the University, his students, and his department for supporting him in all facets of the academic mission.

"I have always felt that Michigan Tech is an outstanding educational institution which fosters all aspects of teaching, research, and scholarship," said Subhash, the associate chair and director of graduate studies of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics. "This is one of the best places in the country to do the all-around activities associated with any aspect of higher education."

Subhash's work focuses on understanding the properties of materials at high rates of loading, and he distinguished himself early in his career with the invention of the Dynamic Indentation Hardness Tester. The device is now patented in both the US and Canada and has been licensed by the Army Research Lab at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

"It measures a material's resistance to high-speed events, like you'd have in a crash, impact, or in machining," Subhash said.

Among his other honors, Subhash has received the Society of Automotive Engineers' Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award and the ASME Student Section Advisor Award and was named an Outstanding New Mechanics Educator by the American Society for Engineering Education in 1996.

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Concrete Canoe Team Third in the Nation

Michigan Tech's team paddles ahead of the field
Michigan Tech's team paddles ahead of the field to win
the co-ed race in the regionals of the ASCE Concrete
Canoe Competition. Their hard work paid off with
a third-place finish in the national contest,
held in June at Clemson University.

Michigan Tech's team nabbed a bronze, its best finish ever, at the 18th Annual ASCE National Concrete Canoe Competition, held June 25-27 at Clemson University, in South Carolina.

Twenty-one teams earned the right to compete in the nationwide contest by sweeping the regionals, held at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in April. The competition is sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The MTU team paddled their lean, mean boat, The MacInnes, to a third-place finish in the co-ed sprint race and came in fourth in the men's sprint, women's sprint, and women's endurance events.

The students' oral presentation was rated second overall. Teams were judged equally on their presentations, the race results, their design report, and their display.

When the awards were announced, the students hoped they'd finish near the top, though they knew that the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Clemson had a lock on first and second place. "They announced fifth, and that wasn't us, and then they announced fourth," said Neil Hutzler, chair of civil and environmental engineering. "We thought, well, maybe we didn't make it.

"And then when they said Michigan Tech was third, we went nuts."

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Who Wants to Be a Physicist? Pedagogy Learns from Prime Time

Students in Robert Weidman's physics class take tiny tests throughout each lecture
Students in Robert Weidman's physics class take tiny tests throughout each
lecture. From their anonymous, electronic answers, Weidman can tell whether
he can proceed or should spend a little more time reinforcing a concept.

Robert Weidman may never be a stand-in for Alex Trebek or even Regis Philbin, but his new brand of lecture gives introductory physics almost as much pizzazz as a prime-time game show.

Watching the chairs in the big lecture hall (Fisher 135) fill with a couple hundred slumping undergrads, it looks like he's got his work cut out for him. Then the lecture begins, and all that changes.

Part of the class's success is that Weidman, an associate professor of physics, loves the material and knows it so thoroughly he could probably teach it in his sleep. He now has additional help from a nifty new teaching tool.

At his direction, all the students pull out what look like small TV remotes, known officially as fixed ID transmitters. When Weidman puts a multiple-choice question up on the lecture hall's big screen, students respond by pressing a button on their transmitters. This personal response system, or PRS, is a rather dull name for a pretty exciting innovation.

The PRS processes each student's answer. According to a graph displayed on the screen, over 80 percent of the class got the question right, so most of these students did their reading or were inordinately lucky.

As his lecture proceeds, Weidman peppers the class with more questions, and there's a lot of chattering going on as students try to get their minds around each puzzle. That's just fine with Weidman. "The big ingredient with PRS is peer instruction," he says. "They can often converge on the right answer. If the results are miserable, I'll ask them to convince their neighbor and then re-poll the class."

Weidman says later it's OK to get some of his questions wrong. In fact, it's expected. "One of our goals is to address common misconceptions," he said. "Most students have a medieval, or in some cases, an Aristotelian way of thinking." Questions and demonstrations help them develop a more rational, Newtonian approach to problems.

It's a little early to measure if the students are actually learning more. Weidman has overhauled the entire PH2100 course, and the PRS is just one change among many. The litmus test will be if class veterans demonstrate a better grasp of physics fundamentals as they advance through other science and engineering classes.

The anecdotal evidence is positive, however. Complaints are virtually nonexistent, and students ask if they can take other courses with the PRS.

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       Michigan Tech Magazine | December 2005 | http://www.mtu.edu/alumni
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