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+ by Pierre home-Douglas
Photo: Travis Bilbee

Energy & Empathy

ASEE's president combines an innate drive and a desire to understand today's students.

As a youngster, Renata Engel witnessed the long hours her parents put into running an air conditioning and refrigeration business out of their family home in Connellsville, a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania. “A call would come in at 2 in the morning – a freezer was broken – and my father would dash out and fix it,” Engel, 51, recalls. “He never charged them overtime for working at these unusual hours. He said they couldn’t help it if their equipment broke down.” She adds, “Their job didn’t run from 8 to 5. You did what you needed to do to get things done.”

That example of both work ethic and service helped shape the powerfully committed educator who is now associate dean of engineering at Penn State and ASEE president. So did the value her parents attached to education. Neither had attended college, yet they scrimped to make sure their four children received good preparation at a Catholic high school. And so, as well, did the capable women in Engel’s early life. Her mother “was an extraordinarily talented multitasker, who could switch from the needs of a single child to the demands of customers and suppliers and make each feel that they were the only ones who mattered at that moment,” she says. “I was also taught by nuns who seemed to be knowledgeable on every subject, and my grandmother had an adventuresome spirit and streak of independence that probably was not as prevalent among women in the era she lived.” With such influences, “I never got the idea I couldn’t do something because of my gender.”

Encouraged by a physics teacher, Engel seized on engineering as a field that would enable her to make a practical difference in the lives of others. She worked as a waitress for a year after high school to raise money for college and then enrolled in engineering at nearby Penn State-Fayette, later transferring to University Park in an honors program. Her major was engineering science, a multidisciplinary program geared to students who want to integrate basic sciences and computational mathematics with engineering. With courses ranging from physics and chemistry to biology and solid and fluid mechanics, engineering science attracts some of the brightest students. Many go on to graduate study, according to Penn State Vice President and Undergraduate Dean Robert Pangborn, one of Engel’s former professors.

Drawn to Teaching

Engel would do the same, but not immediately. Married two weeks after graduation, she joined Lord Corp. in Erie, Pa., which designs and manufactures vibration isolation systems for industrial products like washing machines, ceiling fans, automobile engines, and aerospace products. The firm introduced her to the R&D process of taking designs from research onto the manufacturing floor. “I got to work with everyone from tool designers and engineers to scientists and people in manufacturing who ran the equipment.”

“It was a job most people would never leave,” she recalls. But after two years with the firm, she moved with her husband, Leland, to Florida, where he had taken an avionics job at Honeywell. Rather than seek another full-time position, Engel decided to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She also began teaching undergraduates and quickly realized she had found the ideal combination of acquiring and disseminating knowledge. “I walked out of the classroom, leaned against a wall, and thought, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do,’” Engel says.

“I walked out of the class room, leaned against a wall, and thought, 'This is it. This is what I’m going to do.’  "  – Renata Engel, on her decision to teach

Her interest in education wasn’t confined to college students. With Stanley Kranc, professor in the civil and environmental engineering department, Engel also worked on a two-week summer camp that exposed high school students to engineering careers and showed the connection between engineering and math and science.

Engel spent a year as an assistant professor at USF and then was hired by her alma mater. “She was surprised that they remembered her at Penn State,” says Kranc. “But someone like her you don’t forget.” After 38 years as a professor, he still ranks Engel as one of his three or four most memorable students. “With her intelligence and energy, she always seemed destined for bigger and better things.”

The young instructor gained a reputation for making a class vibrant and relevant. Sven Bilén sat in on one of Engel’s courses when he joined the Penn State faculty in 2000. “I wanted to learn from an expert,” recalls Bilén, now interim head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP). He was impressed by her range of classroom teaching techniques: a perfect example to illustrate a point here, an icebreaker statement there. “It also surprised me how quickly she learned the students’ names so they felt like individuals in the classroom.”

Having taken Kranc’s advice to join ASEE, Engel became Penn State’s campus rep and then assumed increasingly more important roles in the mechanics division, ultimately serving as chair in 1998. Nancy Denton, who preceded her as mechanics division chair in 1996, recognized Engel’s leadership and organizational abilities right from the start. “She’s a low-key, very personable perfectionist. Renata is very good at identifying what needs to be done and figuring out how to bring people together to make sure it’s done well. She also sees the best in people, and that’s important when you’re working at a volunteer organization.” That’s a perception shared by David Wormley, dean of engineering at Penn State and former ASEE president: “Renata is great at formulating and articulating a strategic vision for the future and then working with people to move forward with that vision. She works well with people in drawing out ideas and then incorporating them.”

Engel’s interest in education reached beyond engineering. In 2000, she became director of Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, which seeks to improve learning throughout the university by developing innovative curricula and testing their effectiveness in the classroom. But six years later, given the chance to become associate dean of engineering, she happily returned to her chosen field. “There were a few positions in the university that I knew I would really like to step into. This was one of them.”

Pragmatic Mentor

Former students praise Engel not only for her energy and enthusiasm but also for her commitment to them. Laura Ruhala decided to do her Ph.D. with Engel after visiting the campus in 1994. “I was a little worried about how, once research advisers have you trained, they don’t want you to leave,” she recalls. “But Renata said right from the beginning that she knew that my doctorate was a means to an end and not an end it itself. That sold me right there. She was obviously a pragmatic person who knew that I wanted to do something with my degree.” During their fruitful five-year collaboration, Engel let Ruhala be the sole author of published research. “My God, that’s so unique, so generous,” says a still-amazed Ruhala, now an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga. “As a faculty member, I know how many publications you need to survive.” Engel was equally generous with her time. “She’s so incredibly busy, but when she talks to you, it’s like she doesn’t have anything else going on. You wouldn’t know how busy she really is.”

As associate dean, Engel has stressed real-world training and global thinking. Enlisting industry sponsors and soliciting their ideas for both research and teaching, she has also been instrumental, Pangborn says, “in making the first-year design course in SEDTAPP a practical experience, where students could rub shoulders with industry partners who would develop project ideas for the students to work on.”

Using her administrative clout to internationalize Penn State’s curriculum, she championed a four-week summer course in China on the impact of history, culture, and the environment on Chinese engineering design and manufacturing. “If it was just a faculty member fighting tooth and nail to make it happen, it might not have succeeded,” Bilén notes.

One of Engel’s priorities as ASEE president will be linking up with engineering societies around the world. Another will be maintaining ASEE’s K-12 momentum, seeking to attract more elementary and high school students to engineering. “Everybody works so hard on this issue. . . . Federal agencies have supported it, industries have supported it, local communities have supported it, higher education has supported it; and yet, we still aren’t getting the message across,” she says. Rather than yield to frustration, however, she sees potential in programs that show vividly how engineering can improve lives. One is Engineering Ambassadors, employed at a number of universities. Begun at Penn State in 2009, it sends engineering students into local middle and high schools, where “they find out what the content is in a physics class, a math class, a biology class, etc., and then bring in engineering examples and a presentation that relates directly to what [the young people] are learning,” Engel explains. One of the Penn State program’s founders, Melissa Marshall, says Engel provided crucial support, recognizing its value both in outreach and in helping engineering students “gain leadership and communications skills critical for their future.”

Engineering Ambassadors is also an example of a trend that Engel believes sets today’s students apart from previous generations: an inclination toward service and a community responsibility. “They grow up with that. It’s part of them, part of who they are,” Engel says. Many older engineers can date their interest in engineering to tinkering with the family car or fixing the lawnmower. Engel herself, as a child, assumed that everyone had a lathe and a mill in the basement. Present-day students often lack that kind of experience but reveal their engineering talent in other, imaginative ways. For example, a Penn State chemical engineering student came up with the idea of using cellphone technology and inexpensive biotechnology devices to measure a host of health factors, such as lung capacity and blood pressure, and to consult doctors around the world. “Nobody coming into class back when I was a student could have done that,” Engel says. Undergraduates are now carrying out the project in Kenya.

“We can’t re-create the same thing that we were,” she says. Instead, educators have a responsibility to “capitalize on what students bring today and make sure that what isn’t as strong is strengthened.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.




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